The history of legal action meant to chill free speech is long and sordid. From sedition and obscenity laws through McCarthyism and the current effort to silence Palestinian activist groups on college campuses, those in power have a bad habit of cracking down on writers and activists whose work they deem a threat. David Sheen, an Israeli-Canadian journalist, is now the target of such a campaign, perpetrated not by the Israeli government but by an eccentric multimillionaire named Israel Ziv.
Following a report in the Electronic Intifada in which Sheen took aim at his work with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit, Ziv decided to sue Sheen for defamation in Israeli court. The lawsuit aims to force Sheen to pay $200,000 in damages, an exorbitant sum for an independent journalist operating on a shoestring budget. A guilty verdict could reverberate through the Israeli media world, silencing the few isolated cassandras who have effectively challenged the imperatives of a perpetual occupation and policies that amount to apartheid.
Sheen, one of the foremost chroniclers of Israel’s persecution of non-Jewish African refugees, is a natural target for Israeli partisans who view dissent as dangerous. His exposure of Ziv for offering services to South Sudan is especially significant in light of the many high-ranking Israeli government officials and defense contractors that have sold weapons and military technology to South Sudan, a cozy arrangement the Israeli media has largely turned a blind eye to.
‘Repeated attempts’ to change the status of free speech inside Israel
In his article for Electronic Intifada, Sheen cited a video report by Israel’s Channel 2 news station about Ziv’s attempt to rehabilitate Kiir’s reputation. Israel was one of the first countries to recognize South Sudan, which it treats as a proxy state against the Iran-backed Sudanese government in Khartoum, and Israeli companies began massive investments in the young nation’s infrastructure almost immediately after it declared independence. The video claims Ziv met with “a former Israeli general, two of Israel’s top former diplomats, a former journalist who everyone knows, and PR advisors” in a central Israel cafe in 2015 to discuss whitewashing Kiir’s crimes. One idea, as Sheen reported, was that “Kiir would make a speech at the UN, flanked by a woman who had been raped by soldiers from South Sudan.
“Is it inherently racist of Ziv to want to profit from whitewashing a criminal despot like Kiir?” Sheen asked. “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,” he concluded, “Ziv’s conduct was deplorable.”
It was this brief characterization, based on a report in Israeli news that Ziv does not appear to be disputing, that resulted in the defamation lawsuit. Ziv is not objecting to the factual report itself, but to the editorial in which Sheen suggested such work is morally wrong.
Sheen’s lawyer, Shlomi Zacharia, told me he considers the lawsuit a SLAPP case (strategic lawsuit against public participation). The aim of a SLAPP is not necessarily to win, but to burden the defendant with legal bills until they give up. In Sheen’s case, Zacharia says, the lawsuit “is trying to silent the author’s opinions, opinions expressed based on comprehensive research conducted by Israeli TV, which has not been denied.” This sort of libel suit, he said, is further proof that “freedom of speech is under attack nowadays” in Israel, a fact even the Supreme Court has acknowledged. In a recent decision on political billboards, one judge wrote, “Freedom of expression is now firmly established in Israeli society…However, in these times, we are witnessing repeated attempts to challenge its status.”
Ali Abuminah, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Electronic Intifada, offered a fervent defense of Sheen’s work. “As a publication we stand behind the reporting and analysis David Sheen has done for us,” Abunimah told AlterNet. “Like any responsible publication, The Electronic Intifada takes accuracy and fairness very seriously. When we’re informed of an error, we acknowledge and correct it as soon as we can. Until today, neither Israel Ziv nor his lawyers have ever informed us of any factual error in David Sheen’s reporting.”
Abunimah believes that clear that Sheen is “being subjected to lawfare intended to restrict his freedom of speech and his freedom to report and comment on matters of public interest. It may be that Ziv hopes to make an example of Sheen that will silence other journalists writing in and about an Israel which is increasingly intolerant of any form of dissent or challenge to authority.”
The ‘Reich commander’
A former head of operations for the Israeli military, Ziv served as a commander in the Gaza Strip during the Second Intifada, where he earned the nickname “Reich Commander” from his underlings. After his time in the IDF he founded Global CST, a consulting firm that has provided military training to security forces in a number of countries from Colombia and Peru to Nigeria and Georgia. The Colombian government signed a contract with Global CST just after Ziv’s retirement from the IDF in 2006. Ziv was a friend of Colombia’s Minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, who went on to become the nation’s president—a title he has held since 2010. Ziv pledged to defeat “internal terrorist and criminal organizations” but soon ran afoul of his clients.
In February 2008, Colombian police sent a cable to the government alleging that Global CST interpreter Shai Killman, an Israeli national born in Argentina, had copied confidential documents from the Defense Ministry and tried to sell them to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the revolutionary guerilla movement better known as FARC. The cable concluded that Ziv’s proposals “seem designed more to support Israeli equipment and services sales than to meet in-country needs.”
The following year, Global CST signed a $9 million contract with the Peruvian military to help it defeat Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), the Maoist insurgency whose influence had steadily decreased since the capture of its leader Abimael GuzmÃ¡n in 1992 but which continued to be active in the ApurÃmac, Ene and Mantaro river valleys. An investigation by the comptroller general’s office determined that Peru had lost $16 million due to Global CST’s failure to keep its end of the contract.
The situation eventually got so bad that, according to U.S. State Department cables released by WikiLeaks, the U.S. put pressure on the Panamanian government to stop working with Ziv. U.S. Ambassador Barbara Stephenson told Panama’s President Ricardo Martinelli that Global CST had already made a mess in Colombia in Peru and warned that “the presence of Israeli contractors in Panamanian ministries would by necessity restrict U.S. government security cooperation and information sharing.” William Brownfield, the U.S. ambassador to Bogota, shared a similarly negative opinion of Ziv after the Colombian police chief characterized their relationship as a “disaster.”
Sheen invited Ziv’s wrath when he wrote about the former general work with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit.
Now one of the closest African allies of the US and Israel, President Kiir earned his stripes fighting with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in the second Sudanese Civil War, which lasted from 1983-2005—one of the longest and bloodiest civil wars ever recorded. He eventually rose to become the leader of the rebel group, which was notorious for its use of thousands of child soldiers, and became an unlikely hero to American evangelicals, who saw him as representing Christianity against the Muslim horde to the north. After resistance leader John Garang died in a helicopter crash in 2005, Kiir succeeded him as Vice President of Sudan. Kiir was elected President of South Sudan when the new country gained autonomy in 2011.
Rarely seen without his signature black cowboy hat—a gift from George W. Bush—Kiir became infamous for his homophobia and his hatred of dissenting journalists. In August 2015, Kiir warned, “Freedom of the press does not mean that you work against your country. If anybody does not know that this country will kill people, we will demonstrate on them.” Three days later, freelance journalist Peter Julius Moi was shot in the back and killed by unknown assailants.
Yet another civil war broke out in South Sudan in 2013 when Kiir accused his former deputy Riek Machar of attempting to orchestrate a coup. The conflict continues to this day and has left up to 300,000 dead. A U.N. report published last year said that under Kiir, South Sudanese forces targeted civilians, burning some of them alive and suffocating others to death by stuffing them into hot shipping containers. The army also castrated young boys and allowed its soldiers to gang-rape women in place of wages.
A silencing effect
If Ziv prevails, he will set a disturbing precedent for journalists covering Israel-Palestine from the ground, chilling criticism of Israeli officials with the fear of punishing legal reprisals. The American example is instructive, and may have provided inspiration for ethically challenged Israeli officials seeking insulation from public scrutiny.
Just last year, libertarian tech billionaire Peter Thiel spent $10 million to bankroll Hulk Hogan’s legal fees in his lawsuit against Gawker. A Florida court ruled that publishing a sex tape violated the former professional wrestler’s privacy and awarded him $140 million in damages, a sum that bankrupted the site and forced it to shutter.
According to Zacharia, Sheen’s case “will define the scope of protection given to opinions that are not in the mainstream.” Outsiders speaking truth to power, Zacharia says, are “the ones who need the protection of freedom of speech the most.”
One thing is for certain: those who believe restrictions on free speech will favor the left are dead wrong. Sheen’s legal plight is a sobering reminder that a narrowing of acceptable public speech rarely benefits those who condemn the powerful. Though defamation lawsuits don’t fall under the category of government censorship, they often have the same effect: to intimidate and silence those who speak out against wrongdoing.
It is no accident that Harvey Weinstein is notoriously litigious, threatening defamation suits against anyone brave enough to stand up to him (before the New York Times published his history of sexual assault, reports claimed he was planning to respond with a $50 million lawsuit). Weinstein’s threats of litigation, along with a series of non-disclosure agreements and a good deal of industry clout, were how he managed to get away with his misdeeds for so long. Ziv’s equally baseless lawsuit does something similar, serving as an implicit threat to journalists who may choose to follow Sheen’s lead.
In another disturbing parallel, Ronan Farrow wrote in the New Yorker earlier this week about Weinstein’s use of the Black Cube, a private Israeli intelligence agency run by ex-Mossad operatives, to track journalists and actors suspected of speaking out about his crimes (the man who put Weinstein in touch with Black Cube was former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak).
But as the Weinstein saga has proven, when the truth comes out on platform after platform, both large and small, lawsuits can’t do much to stop it. You can’t sue everyone, even if you’re Israel Ziv. Faced with allegations in the press, the accused may see litigation as a dam to stop the flood. But reports from independent journalism and social media tend to leak through the cracks, making it increasingly hard to shut critics up once the information starts rolling in.
The lawsuit will not erase Ziv’s legacy. A man of obvious skill and great notoriety, he has chosen to use his talents to burnish the reputations of tyrants and murderers. Public image is Ziv’s area of expertise; his true legacy is not as a general but as a publicist. With such a keen understanding of the role media plays in determining reputations, it’s only natural for him to treat David Sheen as an existential threat.