Study: Public Figures, Ethiopians Get Higher Compensation in Israeli Libel Suits

Tomer Zarchin
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Tomer Zarchin

Public figures are awarded more than twice as much in libel lawsuits as private individuals, according to a new study.

Dr. Tamar Gidron of the College of Management and Academic Studies, together with attorneys Ilouz Roei and Roi Reinsilber, have found that Tel Aviv courts in particular award higher compensation for libel than those elsewhere in the country, and that female judges tend to be more generous than their male counterparts.

The study further suggests that people who appear to represent a particular cultural, ethnic group or even professional group receive higher compensation than those who don't.

The findings are due to be published in Mishpatim, the Hebrew University Law Review, in the coming weeks. They are based on 563 rulings issued by magistrate, district and supreme courts from 2004 to 2011 in which judges either awarded plaintiffs compensation in libel suits or changed the amount awarded in previous rulings.

In 2004, the courts ruled in 59 libel suits, awarding an average of more than NIS 53,000. In 2011, 50 rulings were issued, with an average compensation of a little more than NIS 32,000.

Public figures received an average of NIS 70,000, according to the study, significantly higher than private individuals. The average compensation awarded to plaintiffs who sued the news media - print, radio and television - was about NIS 58,000. Companies and legal bodies received an average compensation of NIS 43,000.

Plaintiffs who were described as "Ethiopian," "religious," "ultra-Orthodox" or "attorney" at the start of the ruling also received a higher-than-average compensation of NIS 49,000. When no such defining characteristic was used to describe the plaintiff, they were awarded an average compensation of only NIS 30,000.

Meanwhile, the magistrate and district court judges in Tel Aviv, which has the country's largest courthouses, proved considerably more generous when it came to awarding monetary compensation in defamation lawsuits - an average of NIS 53,000 compared to NIS 40,000 elsewhere.

Female judges awarded an average of NIS 45,000 per libel case, compared to NIS 40,000 awarded by male judges.

A bill is currently in the works to drastically increase the compensation sum awarded in libel suits. The bill, which is in the preliminary stages of legislation, would authorize the courts to award compensation without proof of damage - today set at NIS 50,000 - up to a maximum of NIS 300,000.

The bill also sets the maximum compensation for maliciously committed libel at NIS 600,000, compared to NIS 100,000 today. It would authorize the court to impose compensation, without proof of damage, of up to NIS 1.5 million in the case of a publisher who does not give a plaintiff a reasonable opportunity to publish a response to a damaging report.

The proposal's opponents say such legislation could deal a fatal blow to investigative journalism.

What's more, Gidron's study found that in most cases judges award plaintiffs significantly less for libel without proof of damage than the NIS 50,000 set by law.

"Personally I believe this study shows the compensation for libel suits without proof of damage should not be raised, and certainly not to the amount proposed, which constitutes punitive damages," Gidron says. The courts are free to award plaintiffs any sum they see fit, even if it is well above NIS 50,000, for libel suits with no proof of damage. Gidron says the fact that they have not raised the compensation fees in the past eight years sends a message that the sum should not be raised.

The Jerusalem District Court.Credit: Tess Scheflan