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The only democracy in the Middle East? Not without free speech, it's not Open in fullscreen

Antony Loewenstein

The only democracy in the Middle East? Not without free speech, it's not

Sheen's work has highlighted Israeli state-sanctioned racism [Sonia and Rudy Chaim]

Date of publication: 9 August, 2017

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Comment: Free speech is an integral part of any democracy. The legal case against respected Israeli-Canadian reporter and analyst David Sheen lays Israeli hypocrisy to bare, writes Antony Loewenstein.
Israel promotes itself as the only democracy in the Middle East. 

Former prime minister Ehud Barak once described his nation as a "villa in the jungle". But recent years have seen a major erosion of press freedoms in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, and an Israeli Jewish public that wholeheartedly supports the suppression of independent media.

Palestinian journalists are routinely harassed and arrested. Palestinians are increasingly targeted on social media after Israel accuses them of incitement. Al Jazeera is now being threatened with closure. Israel's communication minister Ayoub Kara claimed that Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain were his inspiration for trying to shut the Qatari news channel.

Israeli journalists aren't immune. Being opposed to the decades-long occupation automatically makes you a target. Israel cannot maintain its control over millions of Palestinians without instituting a regime of control, intimidation, imprisonment and death. Occupation is brutal, unforgiving and now permanent.

Israeli-Canadian journalist David Sheen is the latest reporter to fall foul of Israel's draconian political environment - and his case should be a wake-up call to a global community that still clings to the belief that Israel is a thriving democracy.

Sheen has contributed to The New Arab, Haaretz, Al Jazeera and others, and is one of Israel's finest chroniclers of the state's mistreatment of its Africans, and a consistent advocate of humanitarian principles. 

He is being sued by an Israeli general, Israel Ziv, for writing about Ziv's connections to the South Sudanese government led by President Salva Kiir.

Late last year, Israel's Channel 2 discovered that Ziv's company, Global CST, in addition to assisting and training security forces in South America, Eurasia and Africa, was advising Kiir to defend his beleaguered South Sudanese regime.

Sheen is being sued by an Israeli general, Israel Ziv, for writing about Ziv's connections to the South Sudanese government

Kiir's military stands accused of encouraging its soldiers to rape women during the ongoing civil war. Ziv and his colleagues allegedly suggested bringing a rape victim to the UN in New York, and giving Kiir the chance to blame these war crimes on traditional African culture. Ziv claims he was only working on agricultural projects in South Sudan.

The South Sudanese regime is guilty of rampant human rights abuses - including murder, rape and ethnic cleansing. Israeli companies have a dark and largely hidden relationship with the African state, selling weapons and surveillance equipment since the country's independence in 2011.

I was based in South Sudan in 2015 and routinely heard about Israelis visiting to assist the state's repression. 

This fits into Israel's aggressive policy to befriend African states, selling them arms and defence equipment, in the hope of better diplomatic support at the UN. Israel has also been sending African refugees to Rwanda and Uganda in an opaque process that's causing immense trauma for the people being sent back.

Read more: #BlackLivesMatter - Israel and the fight against racism

I interviewed Eritrean refugees in South Sudan in 2015 who had been kicked out of Israel and left to fend for themselves in one of Africa's poorest nations.

Tellingly, Ziv is pursuing Sheen - but not Israel's Channel 2 (its report on Ziv is damning). It's the very definition of a SLAPP suit which is "intended to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defence until they abandon their criticism or opposition".

Sheen is a rare voice who should be celebrated, not silenced

After the Channel 2 investigation aired last December, Ziv appeared on Israel's Army Radio. One of the hosts, Amit Segal, asked Ziv: "So how did you get into a situation where you are sitting in a café… and in something like a parody of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, you suggest how he [the president of South Sudan] can whitewash his crimes?"

Ziv chuckled. He was accused by a mainstream journalist of secretly plotting to manipulate world opinion, cover up crimes and was compared to the most anti-Semitic work in history, and yet Ziv did not sue Segal. Instead, he's harassing Sheen. 

Ziv has a history of disturbing behaviour and comments in both Palestine and the world's trouble spots. As a former commander of Israeli forces in Gaza, he has smeared Palestinians as having a "society for whom lies are its truth". He has blamed murdered peace activist Rachel Corrie for her own death at the hands of the Israeli army in 2003.

In 2002, Israeli media outlet Kol Ha'ir Weekly Magazine reported that Ziv pushed to close an inquiry into the killing of five Palestinian children in 2001, "an investigation that may question, among other things, Ziv's own responsibility for the killing".

Ziv is deeply connected with the Israeli political establishment

Ziv is deeply connected with the Israeli political establishment - many former Israeli politicians have worked for his company, Global CST, and assisted in the repression of innocent civilians across Latin America.

According to Amnesty International, Ziv's firm was witnessed training Guinean military forces in 2009. That same year, Guinean forces committed horrible human rights abuses.
Israel has recently upgraded its relations with the African state.

Wikileaks' State Department cables released in 2011 revealed that the US had major concerns with Global CST, claiming it "created problems" in Colombia and Peru. US ambassador to Bogota, William Brownfield, wrote that the company "had no Latin American experience and that its proposals seem designed more to support Israeli equipment and services sales than to meet in-country needs".

Sheen, a friend and colleague, has spent his professional life highlighting the descent of Israeli society into state-sanctioned racism. His astute observations are increasingly rare in a country that celebrates the use of unaccountable violence against perceived enemies.

The court case against Sheen should be carefully watched by global media watchdogs, fellow journalists and foreign governments as a test case of the Israeli judicial system

Most importantly, he has examined the growing tendency of Israeli military figures to profit from its brutal occupation of Palestinians. The Israeli state is now a global leader in providing military, strategic and political advice to nations determined to deter, stop, kill or imprison unwanted minorities.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has worked for years with his media allies trying to silence anti-occupation voices. Critical perspectives on the occupation, Palestinian self-determination, Zionism or Israel's future are increasingly infused with indignant nationalism and rampant anti-Arab racism.

Sheen is a rare voice who should be celebrated, not silenced. The court case against him, beginning in September, should be carefully watched by global media watchdogs, fellow journalists and foreign governments as a test of the Israeli judicial system to fairly arbitrate between a powerful, former military man and an independent journalist.

It's clear where justice lies.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist who has written for The New York Times, the Guardian and many others. He is the author of My Israel Question and Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe and has been reporting on Israel/Palestine for fifteen years.

Follow him on Twitter: @antloewenstein

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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