Found Guilty of Libel for Facebook Post About Netanyahu, Crowdfunding Campaign Helps Cover Journalist's Costs

The balance, or the entire amount if the judgment is overturned on appeal, will be donated to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Igal Sarna says

Israeli journalist Igal Sarna arrives at the court before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara (not seen) arrive to testify in a libel lawsuit they filed against Sarna, at the Magistrate Court in Tel Aviv, March 14, 2017.
Israeli journalist Igal Sarna arrives at the court before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara in Tel Aviv, March 14, 2017. Moti Milrod

Just over a week after being ordered to pay 115,000 shekels ($32,700) in a judgment in a defamation case filed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, journalist Igal Sarna has managed to raise the full sum from a crowdsourcing campaign on the internet. 

The amount of the judgment was raised within 36 hours after the campaign was launched and actually exceeded the amount of the judgment. Sarna received contributions from 925 donors, including 44 who contributed 500 shekels each. 

The Netanyahus sued Sarna, a journalist with the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, for comments that he posted on his Facebook page implying that the prime minister's motorcade had stopped the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway one night and that the prime minister's wife had kicked the prime minister out of the car. In his Facebook post, Sarna wrote that a "not-so-young man is ejected with shouts into the darkness on Route 1 because one woman doesn’t want him to remain with her in the car."

Sarna, who said he would appeal, stated that he would donate the amount in excess of the 115,000-shekel judgment to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel earmarked to the organization's efforts to combat so-called SLAPP lawsuits – strategic lawsuits against public participation – in which defamation cases are filed in an attempt to silence public critics by burdening them with legal proceedings. Sarna told Haaretz that he was overjoyed by the response to the crowdsourcing campaign. 

In its judgment earlier this month, the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court stated: "The name of public figures is not up for grabs and their blood is not less red than the blood of anyone else." The court ruled that Sarna had not proven that the incident took place and had not demonstrated that the defenses to a defamation suit – the truth of the statement, good faith, the defense of responsible journalism – apply in the case. 

The judge, Azaria Alcalay, went on to say that he agreed with the Netanyahus that, at least in part, the Sarna's statements were "malicious and ugly and designed to embarrass and humiliate" the Netanyahus. Judge Alcalay also noted repeated vitriolic statements that Sarna had made about the Netanyahu, particularly about the prime minister himself.

In his crowdsourcing request posted this week on the Israeli Giveback website, Sarna wrote that he believes that the prime minister's defamation suit and the judgment rendered in the case do damage to political freedom of expression and would deter others from making comments critical of the prime minister "and silence legitimate criticism." He also said that the court declined to allow evidence to be admitted in the case on character of Sara Netanyahu's behavior toward her husband.