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Defamation. Three italian journalists sentenced to jail

The Court of Milan sentences to one year of prison for defaming the prosecutor of Palermo. Only one of them receives a suspended sentence.

MILAN– Italy’s libel laws, widely criticized as unjust and in need of reform, have resulted in another prison sentence, this time  for three journalists from the weekly newsmagazine “Panorama”. The ruling has sparked a renewed call for urgent reform of the libel laws as well as expressions of solidarity for the journalists facing a penalty that, due to its severity, casts an intimidatory shadow on the field of journalism.

One year in prison for Andrea Marcenaro, reporter for “Panorama” and for Riccardo Arena, correspondent from Palermo and president of the Order of Journalists of Sicily; eight months for the editor-in-chief of “Panorama”, Giorgio Mulè. Wednesday, May 22, the Court of Milan handed down the sentences for the defaming the Palermo prosecutor Francesco Messineo, who had sued for the weekly news magazine for an article published in 2010. Arena, who only assisted in writing the article, received a suspended sentence.

Editor-in-chief Mulè was accused of failing to check the article written by Marcenaro, which was found to be defamatory. The single presiding judge, Caterina Interlandi, also ordered that twenty-thousand euro be paid to the Palermo prosecutor. The judgement must be be confirmed by two levels of appeals before becoming final.

The outcome of the trail was first reported by the Italian daily “Il Giornale” which also published an editorial by editor-in-chief Alessandro Sallusti, the journalist who last year was sentenced definitevely by Italy’s Supreme Court to 14 months of confinement for defaming another judge, Giuseppe Cocilovo. While under house arrest,  Sallusti was pardoned by Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano, who commuted his sentence to a fine while stressing the need to amend the Italian laws so that defamation is no longer punished by a prison term.

Subsequently, in March, Sallusti was suspended from the profession for three months by the Order of Journalists of the Italian region of  Lombardy, for not having published a correction for the news ruled defamatory by the courts. Sallusti has appealed the suspension to the national Order of Journalists, which has not yet ruled on the matter.

“The freedom of the press cannot be locked away in a prison. Criticism, even the harshest kind, as long as it does not descend into insult or lies, is the salt of debate in a democracy, from which no one can think of escaping,” said Marina Berlusconi, daughter of ex-perkier Silvio Berlusconi and president of the Mondadori publishing group, which owns both “il Giornale” and “Panorama.”

In the Panorama article deemed defamatory, Marcenaro referenced embarrassing family ties of Palermo prosecutor Messineo: a brother-in-law under investigation for mafia, and criticized Messineo’s handling of the prosecutor’s office, which is divided by disagreements among the judges, as indeed Messineo himself had pointed out at the time of his inauguration. “Panorama” noted out that several other news outlets had written about the relative’s suspected mafia ties but were not sued, including “La Stampa”, “la Repubblica” and “il Corriere della Sera.”

There were many statements of solidarity from the world of politics.

Translated by Cristina di Battista

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