The Seven Network has denied claims from a French newspaper that it “set up” a segment in which an Australian woman wearing a burkini was asked to leave a French beach.
Newspaper Nice-Matin carried an extensive report this week investigating the Sunday Night segment, with several eyewitnesses saying the Seven reporting team appeared to engineer the expulsion.
The segment in question followed Australian medical student Zeynab Alshelh, 23, as she travelled from Sydney to show solidarity with Muslims in France by wearing Australian-designed burkinis in the French national colours.
In the episode, aired on September 18, Ms Alshelh and another woman, both clad in burkinis, were forced to leave the Villeneuve-Loubet beach in Nice after one man threatened to call the police and a woman gave the family the thumbs down.
“No sooner had they [Ms Alshelh and her family] set foot on the French beach then they got a lesson in just how hostile the locals can be towards Muslims,” host Rahni Sadler said.
Witnesses who spoke to Nice-Matin accused Seven of using hidden cameras, scripted dialogue and deliberately disruptive behaviour to get a reaction.
However, Sunday Night‘s executive producer Hamish Thompson “denied emphatically” the filming was a set-up.
Watch a clip from the segment below:
Nice-Matin quoted an a witness identified as Stephane as saying: “We could see it was being dramatised, it was too much to be true and it stank of a set-up.
“They put themselves right in the middle of the jet-ski corridor of the private beach. Because they were in the way of others, the owner of the beach came out and asked them to move.”
Another witness claimed the man who asked the crew to leave was her uncle, but he was actually asking the crew to stop filming him and his family.
“He never asked these three people to leave the beach. He spoke to the camera because he was asking the cameraman to leave,” the witness said.
“There were children on the beach, including our own, and we didn’t want them to be filmed.”
The wearing of the burkini – an Australian-designed version of the burqa that Islamic women can swim in – is a contentious topic in France, where the wearing of the full-face Islamic veil (the niqab) is banned in public places.
In August this year, a judge in Cannes – a popular tourist spot on the French riviera – upheld a decision to ban women from wearing burkinis on its beaches.
The judge said the ban had been made “in the context of the state of emergency and recent Islamist attacks, notably in Nice a month ago”.
On July 14, 85 people were killed in Nice when a truck ploughed into crowds celebrating Bastille Day. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.
A similar ban in Villeneuve-Loubet (where the segment was filmed) was overturned after a French court found it “seriously infringed, in a manner that was clearly illegal, fundamental liberties”.
‘Seven owes France an apology’
In an article on The Australian, journalist Emma-Kate Symons argued the Seven Network and Ms Alshelh and her family “owe the traumatised people of Nice and France a swift apology”.
“It was dishonest sensationalism that deliberately skewed complex issues surrounding secularism a la francaise and surging religious fundamentalism of the Islamist variety in the context of ever-present terrorist threats and a state of emergency,” Ms Symons wrote.
Ms Symons also spoke to Ms Alshelh, who also denied any “set-up”.
In a statement to The New Daily, a spokesperson for Seven expressed disappointment Ms Symons did not contact the network before publishing.
“We are very disappointed the author of the story did not contact us before she filed the piece,” the statement said.
“It contains many inaccuracies which could have been addressed had she taken the time to call. ”
The Mayor of Villeneuve-Loubet told French publication L’Express he was sorry for the way Ms Alshelh was treated.
“I am sincerely sorry for this young Australian,” he said, adding, however: “She can not come innocently on our beaches like that with a religious habit that is a sign of fundamentalism which battered us.”