A journalist who claimed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was kicked out of his car by his wife will have to pay the couple damages after losing the libel case they brought against him.
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Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court ruled Sunday that Yedioth Ahronoth journalist Igal Sarna must pay the Netanyahus 115,000 shekels ($32,500) in damages.
The Netanyahus sued Sarna for close to 280,000 shekels after he wrote on Facebook that Sara Netanyahu once kicked her husband out of their car during a ride on Route 1, the highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Testifying in court in March, Netanyahu denied the incident ever took place. “Everything Sarna said was a lie, it didn’t happen,” the prime minister told the court.
Judge Azaria Alcalay ruled that the events as described by Sarna were not proven to have occurred. He also criticized the style of the Facebook posts, saying they were written in an "impassioned style meant to augment the tale and dramatize it, while expressing contempt for the plaintiffs."
However, the judge ruled that the posts were not libel in its most extreme form.
Sarna said Sunday that the ruling was "to be expected in these dark times," and promised to continue fighting lawsuits intended to silence critics, the silence of Netanyahu's security details and "the general silencing upon us."
The Netanyahus' lawyer, Yossi Cohen, said the ruling didn't come as a surprise. "We're glad the court set limits" that differentiate between freedom of expression and "the freedom of humiliation," he said. Asked what the couple intends to do with the money, Cohen said, "They have many legal expenses. It's their money."
In one Facebook post from March 2016, Sarna wrote that “it’s part of life” when “the prime minister’s hefty convoy stops at night (it happened) four black vehicles and more and more security men, guards and cars and 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 said this behavior “makes a mockery of all the security, and in fact all the country.” He added in his criticism of the Netanyahus: “Make every possible sound so we don’t hear everything going up in the flames of madness. Beat the drums.”
Two days later, Sarna posted a photoshopped image of Netanyahu hitchhiking on the side of a road. In the post, he wrote, "In Bab El Wad, on the side of Route 1, a tiny tyrant waits for a ride in the dark, someone take him."
The Netanyahus sued Sarna for 139,621 shekels for each post.
Sarna claimed he was told about the incident by an acquaintance, who cited a security guard in Netanyahu's service. Sarna also said he was told by a friend of the couple that similar incidents had happened before. Sarna initially wanted to call Shin Bet security service chief Yoram Cohen to testify in court, but then decided against it, saying he realized Cohen wouldn't cooperate.
On the witness stand, Netanyahu told the court: “Anyone who knows anything about motorcade security knows that something like that can’t happen.”
The judge rejected Sarna's claim that the posts were a legitimate expression of opinion and criticism, protected by freedom of speech. "There's no disputing that as people in the public eye, the plaintiffs ought to have higher tolerance to criticism than others," the judge said, but added that Sarna's post was not an opinion but claimed to be a statement of fact.
The judge rejected Sarna's claim that the libel case was intended to silence him as a critic of the prime minister. Sarna hasn't been shy in criticizing Netanyahu, sometimes in "explicit, cynical and sharp tones" for a long time, the judge said. Netanyahu didn't sue Sarna until the posts in question, the judge said, even though he could have sued him many times in the past had he wanted to silence him.
The judge rejected the defense's claim that the Facebook post was minor and inconsequential, and criticized Sarna for not seeking to verify the information he received before publishing it.
However, the judge also ruled that Sarna's second post, an image of Netanyahu, was clearly a cartoon and therefore not libelous.