Israeli Police Resort to Lawsuits to Counter Social Media Smears, to Activists' Chagrin

The civil suits for monetary compensation for hostile or derogatory content have raised concern over the chilling effect they could have on freedom of expression

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Police officers in Jerusalem holding a protester
Police officers in Jerusalem holding a protesterCredit: Tomer Applebaum

The regular demonstrations outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem as well as restrictions that the police are responsible for enforcing to curb the coronavirus have led to a growing number of confrontations between police and members of the public.

Many of the clashes have been captured on video and posted on social media, leading to furious online responses. Many police officers, concerned about damage to their reputations, are filing civil suits in response, but experts warn that the trend could lead to infringements on civil liberties.

In July, for example, a demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s Residence ended in the forceful removal of the protesters. Chief Superintendent Ronen Hazut, the commander of the special forces unit of the Jerusalem police district, was captured on video at the scene holding a megaphone. His picture was posted online with the caption “Shame!” which quickly prompted a large number of responses, including a comment calling him an “attack dog” and another asking, “Why don’t they spray this scum with pepper spray?”

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Hazut did not bide his time. Last week, he filed a libel suit against the two people behind the posts for 60,000 shekels ($17,500). Hazut has experience under his belt over such litigation. He recently settled with two other online commenters.

One apologized and paid Hazut 5,000 shekels after calling him a “zero in uniform” and saying “without it, he’s nothing.” The other wrote that he was like a slave becoming king and that his day would come. She paid him 4,000 shekels and apologized.

Hazut is not alone. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed recently police officers claiming that citizens had defamed them on social media. Since the beginning of the year, more than 100 such libel suits have been filed, one police source estimated, compared to just a handful in prior years. The increase is apparently the result of the significant jump in encounters between the police and the public as the police began issuing citations for violating COVID-19 restrictions, and as a result of the recent wave of demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In addition to public apologies on social media, police officers have obtained damages of thousands to tens of thousands of shekels per lawsuit. The success that they have enjoyed in court and in out-of-court settlements appears to have encouraged them to pursue the approach.

Ironically, most of those being sued never came into personal contact with the police who are taking them to court. In many cases, the suits are filed against people who have only seen photos of the confrontations.

In one case, a policewoman who was filmed issuing a citation to a woman without a mask is suing five people for a total of 100,000 shekels after she was called a Nazi, a Gestapo member, and a “zero,” in addition to comments such as “you deserve poison” and “may God burn you whores.”

Some defendants opt to settle out of court. “Going to court involves endless expense over nothing,” said one, who agreed to pay 3,000 shekels over a social media post. “We preferred to pay and be done with it. We’re simple people and have no time for this. We’ve learned our lesson.”

The lawyer filing most of the suits on behalf of the police officers is Yoni Jorno. “I view this is a mission,” he said. “I’m the mouthpiece of policemen who see that the police and the spokesman’s office don’t speak up for them when they’re maligned,” he added.

Over the past two years, Jorno said, he has filed dozens of defamation suits on behalf of police officers. The suits are usually similar. Only the name of the defendant and the exact content of the invective varies. “People direct horrific insults at these police officers,” Jorno said. “These police have families and children, and if someone calls them a Nazi, I won’t relent. Calling a policeman a Nazi will cost the person at least 15,000 shekels. Some prefer to pay. With others, we pursue it to the end.”

Illustrative photo of senior police brass observing a demonstration in Jerusalem, Sept. 2020. The individuals in the photo are not connected to the content of this article.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Although the law does not permit him to solicit business, Jorno said police officers contact him by word of mouth. One of his police officer clients is Abed Na’arani, who has been on the scene at the weekly Saturday evening demonstrations near the Prime Minister’s Office and has taken part in clearing demonstrators from the area at the end of the protests.

His photo was recently posted on social media after social activist Rafi Rotem alleged that Na’arani assaulted him not in Jerusalem, but near Tel Aviv’s Bloomfield Stadium. Rotem filed a complaint with the Justice Ministry department that investigates police misconduct, after which Na’arani became the target of online comment. The policeman then sued eight individuals over their comments made in response to a video posted by Rotem.

“Rotem has a group that’s persecuting Naarani,” Jorno alleged. “Every day, they send someone else to the police misconduct unit to complain about him. I don’t know how he manages to function. If he used force, it was only in the line of duty, and if something is not right, let that unit deal with it.”

‘A dangerous trend’

It may not be just the success in court and the more frequent confrontations with the police that have given rise to the increase in defamation suits. In recent years, state prosecutors have substantially curtailed their indictments of citizens accused of insulting a public official. That began after the Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that such criminal indictments should only be filed in very extreme circumstances. So there has been a shift to civil suits.

“We’ve stopped being suckers,” said one officer who sued someone for calling him a criminal in uniform. “If the police don’t back us and file charges, we’ll take these citizens to court. We too have families.”

There are others, however, who have reservations about the approach.“This is a growing and dangerous trend,” said Avner Pinchuk, a lawyer with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “Beyond the fact that in many cases, these are lawsuits designed to silence people, this involves social discourse regarding another serious phenomenon – police violence.”

Illustrative photo of police enforcing coronavirus restrictions in Lod, July 2020. The individuals pictured in this photo are not connected to this article.Credit: Megged Gozani

Pinchuk acknowledged that the police are subjected to very harsh comments, but expressed concern about a chilling effect that the suits may create that would dissuade people from reporting police violence or from expressing their opinions.

“This might only exacerbate the phenomenon of the violence,” he warned, and said there is a limit to how much the courts can police public discourse. “When there is a public interest in debating police violence, I would favor freedom of expression, even when it’s course, so that the issue is on the [public] agenda,” he said.

Pinchuk’s concerns are clearly reflected in a lawsuit filed by Kasa Tesfahun, a Jerusalem special forces policeman who is suing two activists who demonstrated outside the Prime Minister’s Residence following the shooting death in 2019 of Ethiopian immigrant Solomon Teka, allegedly by an off-duty policeman. The activists allegedly accused Tesfahun, who is of Ethiopian background himself, of encouraging the murder of Ethiopians and calling him a traitor. “They said I was working for white people for money,” said Tesfahun, who is seeking 75,000 shekels in compensation.

Assaf Deri, a lawyer representing one of the activists, called the suit an attempt to silence legitimate criticism. He called the approach the double use of power – once at the demonstrations themselves with government backing, and then again in court, where the police officers claim to be the weaker party.

State support for the police

So far, the Justice Ministry has declined to get involved in the issue despite being asked to do so by police officers. In 2015, the State Prosecutor’s Office developed a procedure permitting a police officer who is subjected to shaming to file a request through the police legal adviser to the State Prosecutor’s Office, which then files a defamation action. In 2018, only one such case was filed.

A special committee looked into the matter and recently recommended that the state take on more such cases. A “chief shaming officer” was appointed by the police, who is responsible for examining complaints by members of the police force who claim to have been harmed by online attacks.

According to information obtained by Dana Yaffe of the clinic on digital rights at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem through the Freedom of Information Law, the police submitted 20 requests for the deletion of purportedly offensive social media posts through April of 2019. Four of the posts were removed after prosecutors intervened. There were also requests filed for the deletion of 20 comments, of which eight were removed.

Although many people prefer to settle the civil suits filed against them by police officers, some choose to carrying on the fight. One of them is high-tech entrepreneur Liad Agmon, who was sued by a client of Jorno’s. Agmon was walking in a park during the spring despite the coronavirus lockdown in effect. A policeman violently arrested him. The arrest was caught on video and widely seen online, where it prompted angry reaction.

The policeman sued Agmon for 250,000 shekels. He hired a lawyer, but is also planning on responding primarily with through a campaign centered on the right to freedom of expression.

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