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Power to Truth

From independent journalists to big outlets, press freedom is under attack in Israel.

A man reading a newspaper in Tel Aviv, Israel. Aaron Kor / Flickr

On 6 August, Israel confirmed its intentions to shut down Al Jazeera’s bureau in Jerusalem. The Israeli Communications Minister explained that the decision was “based . . . on the move by Sunni Arab states to close Al Jazeera offices and prohibit their work.”

To be sure, there’s no better way to market oneself as the only democracy in the Middle East than to follow the example of regimes that jail and whip pro-democracy writers.

But the move against Al Jazeera is simply the latest episode in an ongoing war on press freedom and freedom of speech in Israel — a war that itself merely assists Israel’s more physical war on Palestinians, African refugees, and others.

And while Al Jazeera may have temporarily seized the spotlight, we mustn’t forget the lower-profile cases of journalists fighting to speak truth to power.

Take independent Israeli-Canadian journalist David Sheen, for example, who reports regularly on Israeli racism against Africans and other injustices. Sheen is currently being sued for defamation — to the tune of 750,000 shekels (more than $200,000) — by Israel Ziv, former head of the operations directorate of the Israeli army and founder of Global CST, a security consulting firm involved in projects from Latin America to Africa. According to a 2001 article in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, one of Ziv’s nicknames during his army days was “Reich Commander.”

The lawsuit is the result of a January 2017 dispatch by Sheen for Electronic Intifada, in which Ziv appears as one of the top ten “ringleaders in Israel’s war on Africans.”

In his article, Sheen cites a December 2016 video report by Israel Channel 2 concerning the leaked details of a café conversation between Ziv and colleagues, who were said to have discussed how to help rehabilitate the tarnished image of South Sudanese president Salva Kiir Mayardit.

As Sheen notes, one idea put forth for consideration was that Kiir — whose name elicits associations with extreme violence and rape — could “make a speech at the UN, flanked by a woman who had been raped by soldiers from South Sudan.”

Curiously, when interviewed on Israel Army Radio by Amit Segal and Yaron Dekel following the Channel 2 exposé, Ziv in no way denied the café conversation but rather chose to argue that it was inconsequential as it was not part of an official for-pay image-rehabilitation project.

Challenged by Segal and Dekel, Ziv responded: “Amit, if I would record you and Yaron speaking in a café, I’m sure that today you would not be at Channel 2, and Yaron would not be at Army Radio.”

After all, statistics show that the average human café conversation generally involves at least one casual plot to whitewash mass rape.

Anyway, the question remains: why has Sheen in particular been targeted with a potentially crippling lawsuit for commenting on an Israel Channel 2 video?

He’s hardly the only person to have expressed an opinion about Global CST over the years. In 2011, WikiLeaks cables revealed US State Department efforts to thwart the firm’s maneuverings in Latin America, where in 2009 the US ambassador to Panama had warned that country’s leadership that Global CST had already “created problems” in Colombia and Peru.

Of course, such criticism is pretty rich coming from a nation that has for much of its history dedicated itself to creating problems in Panama, Colombia and throughout the rest of the Americas — sometimes, it turns out, in collaboration with the Israelis.

Other problems surfaced in 2010 when the Associated Press reported that Israel had fined Global CST “for negotiating a deal to provide arms and military training to Guinea’s military junta without the state’s prior approval, a[n Israeli] Defense Ministry spokesman said.”

As the article noted, the junta in question was also responsible for large-scale killing and rape. The article furthermore noted that Global CST had denied being fined.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the singling out of Sheen. In a recent email to me, Adam Shapiro — head of communications and visibility at the Dublin-based human rights organization Front Line Defenders — wrote that “the tactic of using courts to intimidate and silence human rights defenders is an age-old practice, and this effort against David Sheen is clearly an attempt to send a wider signal to other journalists.”

Varying signals have already been received by certain journalists, such as the writer sued for defamation in 2015 by Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, a vehement right-wing proponent of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land —an affair summed up in the Jerusalem Post headline “Bennett Sues Journalist for Tweeting That He’s Racist.”

The aforementioned Amit Segal was also on the receiving end of such a “wider signal,” but came out ahead — as indicated by the 2016 Haaretz headline “Israeli Lawmaker’s Libel Suit Backfires: Court Rules Fair to Say He Was ‘Pimping Prostitutes.’”

In Sheen’s case, Shapiro emphasized to me that “Front Line Defenders sees a deeply troubling effort underway by the Israeli government and institutions to chill speech and any criticism of government policies, particularly as related to the control and occupation of the Palestinian territories in Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem, as well as towards minority and marginalized populations in Israel.”

The organization Canadian Journalists for Free Expression meanwhile points out that Ziv is not suing Channel 2, “the source of the original allegations and sufficiently well-resourced to defend itself in court,” but rather “targeting an independent journalist, a sure way to intimidate other reporters.”

For the Israeli powers that be, obviously, the more intimidation and self-censorship, the better — especially when it comes to silencing journalists and other observers who insist on connecting the economic dots between Israel’s domestic system of violent repression of Palestinians and various “Others” and the lucrative marketability abroad of repressive equipment and techniques.

Indeed, Israeli entrepreneurs and companies have for decades had the opportunity to — shall we say — make a killing off of an array of international conflicts, from the Guatemalan civil war to more recent instances in South Sudan and beyond, in an arrangement facilitated by a nurturing home environment of institutionalized bellicosity.

At present, the home environment is presided over by Benjamin Netanyahu, himself no fan of press freedom; according to an August 2016 Haaretz editorial, Netanyahu has admitted “he ‘regrets’ the establishment” of Israel’s public broadcasting corporation, “which he said ‘escaped my attention’ while he was preoccupied with the 2014 war in Gaza.”

Haaretz muses that Netanyahu is so focused on “silenc[ing] critics and rivals . . . that military operations of the magnitude of the Gaza war are needed to allow democratic initiatives to slip below his radar.”

But seeing as even the nominally free Israeli media regularly leaps onto the cheerleading bandwagon during Gaza-magnitude wars, it seems a whole lot more slipping is in order.