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Defamation bill. No to fake reforms and new prohibitions and gags

Without the necessary changes, it will be better to discard this text too. The Government can not stay and watch

Ossigeno per l’Informazione is asking Parliament to approve an authentic, courageous and democratic reform of the crimes of libel and defamation, including that in the press, moving along the tracks traced a long time ago by the European and international bodies: the Council of Europe and the UN, the OSCE and the ECHR. If this is not possible, it is better to let this latest attempt die as well. The Lower House must insert in the Senate’s text the deep changes. The Government can not stand idly by.

Parliament cannot simply delete the penalty of imprisonment, allowed by the current law, may it be because of libel through the press or because of an outright insult. It must decriminalize both offenses (i.e. transfer the regulation within the Civil Code). If the sanctions that replace prison are the fines, they must be proportionate to the income and assets of those who must pay them, and cannot be such as to make it impossible to continue the information activities.

Moreover, Parliament also has to eliminate the endless “hedges” that make the work of reporters look like a mission impossible, preventing citizens to know a lot of important information.

House and Senate, at the first reading of the bill, have excluded the decriminalization and it is now impossible to introduce it in the text. It will be done at later date. But the “hedges” can still be removed, the complaints for intimidation can be deterred and punished, the claim for an adjustment without comment can be mitigated and corrected, the pseudo-rules on the right to forget that are destroying the newspaper archives can be pulped; and so on.

The modernization of these rules is necessary and it has now been expected for over 66 years, and certainly it does not imply placing new prohibitions and gags. Italy must take a big step to get closer to the countries where the press is truly free. Parliament may do so and the government must do its part.

When you start working on the codes (the criminal and civil ones, and the ritual one too), when you open or close the valve on the freedom of the press, the government cannot be a passive and silent spectator as if it were made of stone, as has been so far during the parliamentary process. It cannot say: this is Parliament’s problem.

The government must come out of the cold silence on libel. It must take on the responsibility to point the way of European law, of international treaties and also of economic interest: because Italy will attract little investment as long as the press is only “partially” free, as has been authoritatively certified for many years. Italy will attract even fewer investments if the law under discussion will introduce new limits and new gags to the freedom of information, as it is likely to do. It will keep attracting fewer and fewer investments if it continues to allows hundreds of instrumental complaints and unfounded compensation requests and abuses that put undue pressures, it allows intimidation to go unpunished, it allows improper forms of censorship: Ossigeno has counted more than two thousand one hundred cases in over eight years.

If instead of opening the tap of information, the new law will try to close it, as in some ways the Senate’s text currently before the Judiciary Committee of the House proposes to do, it will be better to bin this botched reform and resign to a status quo of a partly free country in which intimidation against journalists, bloggers, photojournalist, video reporters, hit their targets easily through false accusations of defamation. This risk is very real. But the game is still on.

The House Judiciary Committee knows the proposals advanced by Ossigeno per l’Informazione. Our feeling is that large sections of the Commission and of the Government appreciate them and, realizing the serious limitations to the current text, are oriented to improve it as much as possible, postponing further changes to rosier times, when these will arrive.

It is still possible to reconsider crucial junctions of the bill, as urged in choir by organizations of journalists and publishers. In particular, Ossigeno believes possible: to correct the excess of alternative sentences to imprisonment; to review the system of a correction without reply (indicating that the prohibition applies only to the contextual comment to the reply); to abolish the pseudo right to be forgotten, now structured in a way that is likely to mask acts of censorship; to delete the simplistic equation of the rules to the web by returning this rule making to an appropriate in-depth and balanced discussion on such complex issues; introduce severe penalties, certain and enforceable, against those who resort to instrumental complaints or civil actions, or both, to cripple journalists and newspapers and their democratic function of informing people about the facts of public interest.

These corrections do not defend corporate interests, but the freedom of information, which is of all citizens. These corrections are reasonable. They are possible. They can muster a broad consensus in Parliament.

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