Million-Dollar Lawsuit launched against St. Catharines Standard

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When human rights activist Susan Howard-Azzeh launched a $1 million lawsuit against the St. Catharines Standard, then-publisher Bob McKenzie, managing editor John Harding, staff writer Grant LaFleche and the newspaper’s then-owner CanWest Global Communications, for defamation under the Libel and Slander Act, she couldn’t possibly have imagined the long, knockdown, dragged-out fight her case is shaping up to be. To date, neither side is giving an inch.

Ms. Howard-Azzeh says she held a protest march in St. Catharines on April 19, in memory of her 13 year-old cousin Nidah Azzeh. On March 5, 2002, Nidah was shot dead by an Israeli soldier, after she ran out the front door of her house in the Azzeh Refugee Camp near Bethlehem as the house was being bulldozed by the Israeli military while the family was still inside.

Because the St. Catharines Standard’s coverage of the April 19 protest march is diametrically opposed to Ms. Howard-Azzeh’s stated purpose in holding the march, it follows that the two sides are diametrically opposed in their legal positions, to the point that the newspaper has refused to print an apology or offer any kind of monetary settlement.

Ms. Howard-Azzeh launched her lawsuit in response to an April 20, 2003 article in the St. Catharines Standard entitled Protest was ‘the worst’ anti-Semitism followed by the subtitle Palestinian supporters march in St. Catharines with signs comparing Israeli PM to Hitler. The lead sentence in the article reads: Under the shadow of the Nazi swastika, local Palestinians marched for peace through St. Catharines Friday afternoon.

The April 20 article goes on to state that among the placards pleading for Israel to stop killing Palestinians in the occupied territories was a sign marked with the symbol of Nazi German. Under the swastika, in bold black letters, was a single name Sharon. On the sign’s reverse were the words: ‘Sharon and Hitler are the same’.

Bernie Farber, Ontario executive director of the Canadian Jewish Congress, is quoted in the article as saying that comparing what happened in Nazi Germany to anything in the modern world, especially the tragedies in the Middle East, is stunning. This is the worst, and probably most complex form of anti-Semitism out there. It is the worst form of Holocaust denial, Mr. Farber is quoted as saying.

Ms. Howard-Azzeh said labeling anyone who disagrees with the policies of Ariel Sharon and the Israeli government as anti-Semites and holocaust deniers is the worst form of censorship. I launched the lawsuit because it is important that I and others are free to speak the truth of the day to day suffering of Palestinians under Israeli’s illegal occupation without being slandered or portrayed as anti-Semites, Ms. Howard-Azzeh said.

Ms. Howard-Azzeh said she has received hate mail, hate phone calls, computer viruses and social isolation after the publication of the April 20 article. Subsequently, the Mayor called her into his office for an explanation of the news coverage. On March 25, 2002, after 25 years of award-winning volunteer work as an anti-racism and human rights activist, Ms. Howard-Azzeh was promised a fulltime position as Executive Director of the St. Catharines Multicultural Centre. After the St. Catharines Standard’s April 20 news article, the position was given to someone else.

Meanwhile, following the April 20 article, in an editorial entitled Complex anti-Semitism, the newspaper reiterated a section of Mr. Farber’s quote stating that this is the worst and most complex form of anti-Semitism out there. The editorial stated that the demonstrators, in dredging up Hitler and the Nazis, had injected a level of hate into what had been a legitimate local debate on the issues in the Middle East and march leader Susan Howard-Azzeh had lost any credibility she had on the issue when she told a Standard reporter Sharon is acting like Hitler.

In an April 21, 2003 letter to Ms. Howard-Azzeh, defence lawyer Jennifer Guy, states: At no time did the newspaper report that Susan Howard-Azzeh is anti-semitic, rather the news story took aim at placards and the particular statements that equated Ariel Sharon and Adolf Hitler. Please keep this in mind as this matter proceeds.

Subsequently, in paragraph 8 of their statement of defence, solicitors Jennifer Guy, Stuart Robertson and John Webster, of the Toronto law firm O’Donnell, Robertson & Sanfilippo, stated: The defendants further state that the News Story in no way misrepresents the nature of the march or demonstration and instead that the news story clearly indicated that the nature of the demonstration was an opposition to Israeli foreign policy and the occupation of the Palestinian territory.

When asked to explain why the news coverage in this case is not libelous, Ms. Guy said: I’m not going to comment.

Meanwhile, at a September 30 appearance at Osgoode Hall, the court heard a motion for security of costs by the defendants’ lawyers, Stuart Robertson, John Webster and Jennifer Guy, which would require Ms. Howard-Azzeh to deposit $40,000 into the courts as security of costs towards the estimated $82,000 legal costs she will have to pay the defendants if her lawsuit doesn’t succeed. On November 13, the two sides were in court again with regard to the security of costs motion. After two court appearances, Ms. Howard Azzeh’s lawyer, Rocco Galati, and the St. Catharines Standard’s lawyers haven’t actually argued the motion yet: they’re still in preliminary arguments.

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