Does It Pay to Sue for Libel in Israel?

Study: 85 verdicts on libel cases were handed down in Israel during 2009; highest sum awarded was NIS 300,000.

Does it pay to sue for libel? Well, the highest sum awarded last year by an Israeli court for libel was NIS 300,000. That was in the controversial case that ended a month ago, with Judge Noam Solberg on the bench at the Jerusalem District Court. He ordered television journalist Ilana Dayan and the broadcast company Telad to compensate Captain R., who sued for damage to his reputation after Dayan suggested in her investigative journalism show "Fact" ("Uvda") that he had "verified a kill" of a 12-year-old Palestinian girl at the Girit outpost in the Gaza Strip.

The month the girl, Iman al-Hams, was killed, Captain R. was tried by a military tribunal on charges of opening fire improperly. He was acquitted a year later. Solberg ruled that Dayan's report on the story did not reflect the truth and constituted libel.

Aside from requiring the journalist and television company to air a correction, Solberg also ordered Dayan and Telad to hand over NIS 80,000 to Captain R. for his court costs and legal fees.

Altogether, 85 verdicts on libel cases were handed down during 2009 in magistrate's courts, district courts and the Supreme Court, according to a study by the libel department of the law offices of Ariel Shemer & Co. The office also found that the probability of winning a libel suit at the lowest level - magistrate's courts - which heard 70 cases last year, was 50%. (They accepted 35 cases last year and rejected the same number.) The average amount of compensation magistrate's courts ruled for was NIS 29,000.

Cases in which the claim amounts to more than NIS 2.5 million go straight to the District Court.

District courts heard five libel cases last year, sitting as the first court of instance (not as an appeals court). Of the five cases, only two were found to have merit. One was that of Captain R., described above. The other was Bella Weinstock, who was awarded NIS 190,000.

Weinstock had sued a number of media outlets because of a series of stories about her, covering her arrest and trial in London in 1997. In June 2009, a District Court found for Weinstock, but didn't award her any court costs because the compensation awarded was less than 10% of her claim. Weinstock's appeal is currently being heard at the Supreme Court.

District courts also heard seven appeals of verdicts handed down by lower magistrate's courts. It rejected five and accepted two.

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, handed down three verdicts on libel cases in 2009. One case, closed in August, set a precedent. A majority of the judges, Eliezer Rivlin and Yoram Danziger, ruled that lawyers had absolute immunity when making offensive statements in court during a case.

Despite the public's perception that most libel cases are against newspapers and other media outlets, this isn't the case at all. Out of 75 cases handled by magistrate's and district courts last year, only 14 were against media outlets. Ten of those claims were deemed to have merit.

All the rest were against individuals, including former spouses and employers, as well as companies.

Zvi Gelman, head of the libel department at Ariel Shemer, is representing billionaire businessman Idan Ofer against the journalist Miki Rosenthal. Gelman is also representing a journalist, Rafi Ginat, against Oren Frank - in that case the libel suits go in both directions. Idan Ofer's case involves "The Shakshuka System," Rosenthal's documentary about unkosher relationships between Israeli big business and government.

In Gelman's opinion, the sums awarded in libel cases are on the small side: The survey shows the "low price" the courts charge for ruining a person's good name, he says. This low norm encourages or at least does not deter people from smearing one another, he argues.

Boaz Shnoor, an expert on libel law at the Academic Law and Businesses Center in Ramat Gan, agrees that a man's good name is held cheaply. Shnoor describes a research paper by Tamar Gidron of the Administrative College law school, comparing the amount of compensation awarded in libel cases to compensation for invasion of privacy.

The upshot is that the courts seem to value privacy more than reputation, he concludes: "Possibly the judges assume that human dignity is less significant, because people are constantly belittled in respect to their public activities. Compare that with the privacy of their homes." In other words, people have become inured to being insulted, even in the press. It doesn't mean much to them anymore. The only thing they have left, suggests Shnoor, is the shelter of their home - and when that is invaded, their hackles rise, a sense that leads the judges to crack down harder.