The Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court fined journalist Yigal Sarna NIS 115,000 on Sunday for asserting on Facebook that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was kicked out of his car by his wife in 2015.
The judge ruled that Sarna, who writes for Yediot Aharonot, violated journalism standards by not asking the Netanyahus for a response before posting his claims on Facebook.
“This failure cancels his defense” that he wrote the story “in good faith,” the judge said.
Sarna’s March 2015 Facebook post said that Sara Netanyahu kicked her husband out of his car during a fight, forcing the couple’s caravan of cars to pull over on Route 1 and requiring the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency)’s help to separate them.
The Netanyahus denied the story and sued Sarna for the maximum in defamation damages of NIS 280,000.
The NIS 115,000 granted to the Netanyahus for the damage to their reputations from Sarna’s post is broken down into NIS 60,000 for the prime minister, NIS 40,000 for Sara and NIS 15,000 for lawyers’ fees and costs.
The court said that it was clear from a variety of Sarna’s postings that he related to the Netanyahus “with a strong and deep hatred” and that his goal was to “harm the plaintiffs and degrade them.”
The Netanyahus responded to the decision saying, “Finally, justice has been done.”
Sarna defiantly vowed to appeal and characterized the court decision as chilling criticism of Netanyahu and of the ruling coalition.
Overall, the court accepted the Netanyahus’ word against the word of Sarna about the story, with the Netanyahus making a rare appearance in court in March to testify that the alleged incident never happened.
The court did not accept Sarna’s claim that he had properly verified the story with a source within the prime minister’s personal detail. It pointed out that Sarna did not reveal his source and that his source did not testify on his behalf.
According to the court, this left Sarna having possibly written a story based on an anonymous source who was perhaps passing on to Sarna a story second-hand.
The judge wrote that Sarna should not have published the story without further verifying it and at least getting a response from the Netanyahus.
The judge did not appear to cut Sarna much slack for his 35 years of experience as a journalist in terms of being able to sniff out what stories were true and what were not.
The court also did not allow him a defense based on the idea that he needed to protect his source and that the source could not come forward without facing serious personal consequences.
In court, the prime minister said that part of the reason he filed the lawsuit was to protect the Shin Bet’s reputation from allegations that it had to separate the couple and was taking orders from Sara.
The prime minister continued to firmly deny Sarna’s allegation in his March testimony. “It never was and never could have been,” Netanyahu said, and called the story a “lie” and an “insane attempt to besmirch my family’s name.”
When Sarna was pressed as to why he revised some details from his original story in later posts, he said that – while he was 100% sure there had been a fight, that the prime minister got out of the car on Route 1 and that agents had to intervene – he was less sure of other details.
“I was not sure whether the prime minister left the car himself or whether his wife threw him out, whether they were driving toward Jerusalem or toward Tel Aviv,” Sarna explained – leading to laughter in the courtroom.