Journalist David Sheen faces lawsuit from Israeli general Israel Ziv

David Sheen

Russell Tribunal on Palestine

A retired Israeli general with a history of threatening reporters is suing an independent journalist for defamation, after the journalist included him on a list of leading racists in Israel.

While the journalist asserts his right to state his opinion, Israel’s laws don’t always land on the side of a free press.

At the beginning of this year, David Sheen authored what has become his annual list published by The Electronic Intifada of “Israel’s racist ringleaders.”

The list, published this year on 3 January, cites 10 Israelis in positions of power and influence who have expressed or acted on deep antipathy towards migrants and refugees from African states.

Included this year is Israel Ziv, a man who was a member for more than three decades in the Israeli army, serving as a commander in the occupied Gaza Strip during the second intifada, before retiring and establishing the private “security” consulting firm Global CST, which works with governments in Latin America and Africa.

Ziv landed a spot on Sheen’s list because in December 2016, Israeli media revealed that his firm was helping South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, repair his reputation after the United Nations found that his government systematically permitted soldiers to rape women and children.

Defamation claim

Ziv’s work with Kiir was exposed by Israel’s Channel 2 News, which obtained transcripts of a conversation Ziv had with his team, in which Ziv proposes taking one of the army’s rape victims to the United Nations to stand next to Kiir while he addresses the General Assembly.

Ziv suggested Kiir say, by way of explaining the army’s atrocities, “Sirs, this army just walked out of the bush, this is what the tribes used to do.”

After a long career in the Israeli military, Israel Ziv now heads the security consulting firm Global CST. (Flickr)

According to Channel 2, the scheme’s planners included two former senior Israeli diplomats – Ron Prosor, who had been ambassador at the UN, and Alon Pinkas, who served as consul-general in New York.

Sheen opines in his article for The Electronic Intifada: “Is it inherently racist of Ziv to want to profit from whitewashing a criminal despot like Kiir? Or did Ziv only take advantage of a global white supremacist system where Black lives matter so little that their mass rapes and castrations can be covered up, guilt free?”

“Either way, Ziv’s conduct was deplorable.”

Now Ziv is alleging in a civil suit that Sheen defamed him according to Israeli libel laws. Ziv is demanding about $200,000 in compensation for harm to his reputation.

In the lawsuit, Ziv does not deny helping Kiir, but he objects to Sheen calling him a “racist” and a “ringleader,” and someone who exploits a “global white supremacist system.”

“He doesn’t like the opinions of David,” Shlomy Zachary, Sheen’s lawyer, told The Electronic Intifada. Zachary argues that journalists and activists are entitled to express their opinions.

But Ziv is arguing that Sheen’s assessments of Ziv are actually statements of fact, not opinion.

“He’s trying to say that David is not a journalist, that he is just naming and shaming in order to denigrate and humiliate,” Zachary explained.

Israel’s free speech problem

But according to Israeli legal analyst and journalist Yuval Yoaz, Israel’s laws do not necessarily side with an unhindered press.

“The legal arrangements in the law regarding defamation are not favorable to the free press,” Yoaz told The Electronic Intifada.

“It’s really easy to sue for libel,” Yoav said. “And you can lose a case if you’re being sued, even if what you wrote is the actual truth. It’s a very strange legal situation.”

Israel does not have a complete constitution, but rather a series of “basic laws.” Israel’s high court has ruled that free speech is an implied component of its basic law on human dignity and liberty. But that is still not considered unassailable, Yoaz explains, unlike in the United States where the Supreme Court has given strong protection to free speech.

So while Israel’s courts have ruled that free speech is a constitutional right, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, can still pass laws that infringe on free speech, according to Yoaz.

And, when it comes to defamation, the burden falls on the speaker to defend their speech. In the United States, by contrast, the burden of proof is on the accuser to show that the speaker’s words are both false and malicious.

According to Yoaz, there is a clear course of action in a defamation case in Israel. First, the person bringing the lawsuit must prove that what was published demeans or hurts their reputation, regardless of its accuracy.

The defendant then has two courses for defense: prove what they published is true and has some value of public interest, or prove that they made a mistake but it was without malice.

“Once he proves that what was published shed a bad light on him, then the burden of persuasion goes to the other side,” Yoaz said.

However, the law is more lenient when it comes to opinions.

“If you persuade the court that you were publishing an opinion, then you have a better chance of getting out of the suit,” according to Yoaz.

But it is difficult to predict what a court defines as opinion or fact. “It’s like gambling,” Yoaz said. And even if it is established that it is an opinion, the author still must substantiate it.

“This notion itself has a chilling effect on the press. Because you know you’re never really, 100 percent, protected,” Yoaz said. “This kind of danger, as a working journalist, is something that is there all the time.”

Yoaz says that Israeli politicians use defamation lawsuits with increasing frequency, resulting in journalists spending years in litigation. Whether or not they win, Yoaz says, journalists’ time, money and energy sunk in fighting in court are irretrievable.

International support

Sheen’s lawyer Zachary is arguing that the lawsuit is an example of a SLAPP case – a strategic lawsuit against public participation – intended to intimidate or silence someone through the burden of litigation.

“Here you have someone very strong with an enormous infrastructure of support and resources suing a lone journalist. He didn’t sue the publisher, but a freelancer,” Zachary said.

Sheen told The Electronic Intifada that the case has taken on the role of a part-time job. He has secured funding from the Dublin-based Frontline Defenders and the New Israel Fund for his legal defense, and rallied a wave of support from journalists and institutions around the world.

The International Federation of Journalists, the International Press Institute and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression are among a number of press freedom organizations standing in support of Sheen, urging the Israeli court to dismiss the suit.

In addition, more than 70 journalists have signed a statement supporting Sheen.

“It is important that the principle of journalistic freedom is upheld and that Ziv is not able to use the courts as a way to exempt himself and his business activities from scrutiny, or from criticism,” the journalists state.

On 18 September, Ziv and Sheen will see each other in court for their first pre-trial hearing.

No contact with The Electronic Intifada

Before Ziv filed the civil suit, Ziv’s lawyers emailed Sheen demanding that the article be removed from The Electronic Intifada and that Sheen apologize to Ziv.

Sheen immediately contacted Ali Abunimah, the executive director of The Electronic Intifada.

“I told David Sheen that he should inform anyone complaining about an inaccuracy or error in one of his articles to contact his editors at The Electronic Intifada,” Abunimah explained.

“Our practice is to investigate promptly and if an error is found to make a correction.”

Neither Israel Ziv nor any of his lawyers ever contacted The Electronic Intifada or any of its staff.

“As a publication we stand behind the reporting David Sheen has done for us. He is clearly being subjected to lawfare intended to restrict his freedom of speech and his freedom to report and comment on matters of public interest,” Abunimah added.

“A legal system that truly respected freedom of speech and freedom of the press would never allow this.”

History of bullying

Sheen is not the first person Ziv has threatened with a lawsuit.

In 2016, after Local Call, the Hebrew language sister site to +972, published an investigation into Global CST’s work in South Sudan, Ziv threatened a libel suit if the article was not removed. Local Call did not remove the article but Ziv never followed through with his threats.

“We did not take the story down because we were, and still are, confident in our reporting,” Local Call’s executive director Haggai Matar told The Electronic Intifada.

But, Matar added, “We have seen a worrying number of such cases brought in recent years, particularly against left-wing and anti-occupation activists.”

“While existing Israeli law does offer protection for journalists who can prove they acted in good faith to expose the truth, the legal, political and societal environment in Israel these days should be worrying for anyone who values freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” Matar said.

Ziv appears to have been more successful in censoring articles in Haaretz, Israel’s internationally renowned and ostensibly liberal newspaper.

Between 2009 and 2011, Haaretz journalist Yossi Melman published a series of investigations into Ziv’s and Global CST’s work, specifically in the West African state of Guinea. Melman reported that Global CST contracted to establish a military guard for Moussa Dadis Camara who had seized power in a 2008 military coup.

Melman reported that Israel’s defense ministry fined Ziv for contracting with Camara’s junta in violation of regulations.

But the series of articles was removed from the Haaretz website, and Melman left his position at the paper in 2012, according to Mako, one of Israel’s most read news sites. The circumstances around the articles’ removal and Melman’s departure are murky, but one piece of evidence strongly suggests Haaretz succumbed to legal pressure from Ziv.

In 2012, Ziv’s lawyer Moshe Kahn sent a letter (attached below) to an obscure, anti-Semitic and far-right website after it had posted one of Melman’s Haaretz articles from 2009. Kahn threatened legal action if the article wasn’t removed, stating Ziv had reached a legal settlement with Haaretz to remove the article – which Ziv maintained contained libelous information.

Kahn declined to be interviewed for this article.

Selling agriculture or arms?

Ziv’s meticulous care for his own reputation extends to his company, Global CST, and highlights a strong determination to obscure his and its records.

In an interview with Israeli army radio after Channel 2’s exposé, Ziv insisted that Global CST does not sell arms to foreign countries or facilitate military training.

He asserted that Global CST was only involved in helping agricultural efforts and addressing food insecurity in South Sudan, and the discussion exposed on Channel 2 was merely informal advice he provided as a “personal gesture” and not as part of a contract.

US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in 2012 paint a far less innocuous portrait of Global CST. The cables show that US diplomats were worried about the expansion of Global CST’s work in Colombia, Panama and Peru.

According to one cable, in 2006 Ziv promised to devise a plan for the Colombian defense ministry to defeat “internal terrorist and criminal organizations by 2010.”

Ziv’s firm also reportedly signed a $9 million contract with Peru to help defeat a Maoist insurgency. According to the cable, Ziv told the Peruvians his firm had advised on a raid on a rebel camp in Colombia to free hostages.

A 2009 cable from the US embassy in Tel Aviv states that representatives of two Israeli firms confirmed they were trying to provide night vision devices and rifles to the armed forces of Togo.

The companies were M. Paz Logistics and Global Law Enforcement and Security, which is a subsidiary of Global CST and the Mikal Group, with offices located in Petah Tikva. Listings indicate that Global CST and Global Law Enforcement and Security share the same address and phone numbers.

In the cable, US officials reported that Global Law Enforcement and Security CEO David Tsur “acknowledged that Global is paying M. Paz a commission for its services in the transaction,” and that “he did not know if Global would ever take physical possession of the night vision devices and rifles.” This could indicate a business model that involves arranging arms transactions through intermediaries.

Ziv acknowledged to Israeli army radio that he provides advice on “national security” but denied this involves supplying weapons or training. Ziv also claimed that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who won the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, had told him that there would have been no peace deal in Colombia without his help.

Meanwhile, the Canadian-born Sheen has continued to write, report and document abuses of the African migrant and refugee population in Israel, despite the increasingly antagonistic environment he finds himself in.

He says that his work and livelihood are compromised by the relentless smears on his character by Zionist groups in Israel and the United States, which characterize him as anti-Semitic or a traitor.

And yet, however false and damaging these statements against him, he still does not question the right of these groups to make them.