An independent journalist in Israel is facing a daunting civil lawsuit over his reporting in a case that could have a significant impact on the press and free speech in the country.
David Sheen is being accused of “liable defamation” over a January 2017 article about retired general Israel Ziv and Global CST. The security consulting firm made national headlines in 2011, when diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks showed that the U.S. government had closely monitored and even worked to curb its influence and business dealings in South America. Sheen’s article, however, addressed the explosive findings of a journalistic investigation by Israel’s Channel 2 TV in late 2016 about Global CST’s activities in South Sudan.
Channel 2’s report made public transcripted conversations between Ziv and various business associates in which they discussed a potential public relations campaign to “fortify [the] regime” of the country’s president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, and recover his reputation. Kiir’s military forces had been scrutinized in a United Nations human rights report that revealed the “deliberate targeting of civilians for killing, rape and pillage” under his command.
In one transcript, Ziv and others allegedly discussed an effort to absolve Kiir that involved having a rape victim testify to the U.N. General Assembly that the sexual violence experienced was a tribal cultural issue.
For these reasons, Sheen, who is originally from Canada and has worked in Israel since 1999, included Ziv in his fifth annual list of “ringleaders in Israel’s war on Africans,” published in the Electronic Intifada, a nonprofit publication that focuses primarily on Palestine. Ziv has accused Sheen of libel and has also taken issue with his tweets promoting the story.
“In Hebrew, it reads ‘Arch-racists’ and then lists the 10 people I ranked in my article, and includes a link to the piece,” Sheen says of the tweet. “These tweets reflect my personal opinions, based on reported facts about his actions—facts repeatedly confirmed by his own published responses. A discussion about Mr. Ziv’s actions is in the public interest, and discussing those actions and the actor who committed them is my personal right.”
— David Sheen (@davidsheen) January 4, 2017
Ziv is demanding compensation of 750,000 Shekels (approximately $200,000 U.S.) from Sheen, an action critics claim is a clear attempt at a SLAPP, or “strategic lawsuit against public participation.” SLAPPs attempt to silence opposition by burdening the defendant with the costs of mounting a legal defense.
“Ziv may have thought that by threatening me with the prospect of an inflated financial penalty, I would quickly cave and retract my reporting,” says Sheen, who worked as a reporter and then editor at liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz for several years but has most recently focused his work as an independent reporter on racial tensions and religious extremism in the country. “National media outlets keep teams of lawyers on retainer, capable of slugging it out in court. But as an independent journalist struggling just to tell the important but unpopular stories, I could never afford to defend myself in court, if it wasn’t for the human rights groups at home and abroad, stepping up to support me.”
Front Line Defenders, a free speech advocacy group, is rallying behind Sheen and urging Israeli authorities to abolish the civil complaint, claiming that he “is being targeted because of his legitimate exercise of freedom of opinion and expression.”
Sheen is nervous about the potential implications of the suit, both for him personally and for others in the region.
“While I am no legal expert by any means, I feel that this case could crush freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Israel, even more than it is already being crushed,” he said. “Watching their colleagues get dragged into court for simply doing their jobs provides a powerful incentive for fellow Israeli journalists to censor themselves, for fear of drawing fire.”