Israel: Defamation suit against freelance journalist should be dropped

On Monday 18 September, the first hearing in a defamation case taken out by former Israeli Army General and head of security firm Global CST Israel Ziv against freelance journalist David Sheen will take place. The lawsuit was brought following a report by Sheen published in The Electronic Intifada which highlighted Ziv’s part in seeking to rehabilitate the reputation of President Salva Kiir of South Sudan, who has been accused of war crimes in the country’s ongoing civil war. It was an annual report listing 10 of what the publication calls ‘Israel’s Racist Ringleaders’, which discussed Ziv’s involvement with Kiir, calling his conduct “deplorable” and positing the question of whether his actions were racist. ARTICLE 19 calls for the civil defamation suit to be dropped, as a clear example of judicial harassment of a journalist.

International standards on freedom of expression protect the right to hold and share opinions, and comments and value judgments provided by journalists on the basis of facts undisputed by the plaintiff should never be subject to restrictions under defamation laws. Such defamation cases violate the right to free expression and are a threat to media freedom.

ARTICLE 19 believes this lawsuit is a clear example of “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation” (SLAPP), which refers to situations wherein a plaintiff or claimant (typically a powerful entity) resorts to defamation proceedings in order to silence criticism or political expression.

“The targeting of a freelance journalist, who now faces potential fines of up to US$200,000, is a worrying attempt to silence critical reporting,” said Saloua Ghazouani, Director of the MENA Programme for ARTICLE 19, “and where such law suits are allowed to continue, it creates a chilling effect on independent media,” she added.

In our Revised Defamation Principles, ARTICLE 19 states that legal procedures should always be in place to enable defendants in such cases to have the charges dropped.

ARTICLE 19 urges the court to drop the charges against Sheen, and urges the Israeli government to institute legal procedures which would protect journalists and human rights defenders from such lawsuits, and safeguard media freedom.