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RWB report on Italy. Unfortunately, things are getting worse

The ranking is based on undisputable evidence occurred in our country, and without even considering two other alarming elements

by Andrea Di Pietro – But what is going on in Italy? How can such a dismal performance on press freedom be explained? Many observers have asked themselves so, surprised by the last report by RWB that placed Italy behind Moldova and ahead of Nicaragua, 73rd out of 180 countries in the ranking. The spin-doctors have not missed the opportunity to quibble if Berlusconi is better than Renzi and to clash on this, without providing answers. However, those who bothered to go directly to the source, i.e. the official website of Reporters Without Borders, have learned that the information on Italy was the most complete and all the more worrying because it was based on reports and statistics byOssigenoper l’Informazione on journalists that every day, and because of their work, are attacked, threatened and are “victims also of spuriousand abusive lawsuits,(…) unjust libel cases (there were 84 in 2013 and have risen to 129 in the first 10 months of 2014), brought forward specially by politicians, thus representing some form of censorship.”

Anyone who wants to can understand the matter further by finding out the many concrete examples that illustrate the problem and that explain what is meant by “spurious lawsuit”, so as to open their eyes and see the continuous growth other of such troubling phenomenon. For example, I believe that in the course of 2014 the developments of the crisis that has hit the publishing industry – and in our country has led to the closure of major newspapers – has contributed significantly to a further deterioration of press freedom and pluralism of information.

The negative economic data and the difficulties of the information market have been known for some time, but the situation had not yet arrived to the effective closure of some newspapers. Journalists have experienced the hard way that – having failed the moral guarantees, as well as the legal ones, from publishers – not only can they find themselves suddenly without work, but they may also have to cope on their own, with their own personal resources, the costs for the ongoing trials for defamation, the sentences to pay compensation for damages and to reimburse legal fees, which are often substantial.

If all of this is possible, if a publisher merely needs to close down a newspaper and put journalists in paid layoffs so as to be free from the hassle of legal disputes, of what kind of freedom of the press are we talking about? It is time to realize that something has to change. If the status quo is maintained, free press will disappear. Only a few newspapers will keep afloat, and only the most important ones. However, a change in the political and economic situations of the country will be enough, and given the chronic lack of “pure publishers”, the pluralism so far ensured by the large newspapers can fail at any time.

If the data for the dissemination of newspapers are analyzed, it turns out that currently three or four publishing groups guarantee the pluralism of information in Italy. It is not reassuring to have so few voices that are able to reach a wide audience of readers. The risk of further centralization of information is quite real and this is another element that makes the report by Reporters Without Borders (RWB) even more alarming. Furthermore, it should also be known that the abuse of the right of charge or of civil proceedings for damages is just one of the problems posed by the current legislation on libel. What seriously weakens the journalist is above all the fact that he is always accused of defamation by way of fraud or to have harmed the reputation willingly and with full awareness.

Currently, on paper, the journalist may be punished only for willful misconduct (defamation and insult are crimes that do not involve assumptions of negligence): in fact, however, the courts have turned around, as the journalist is normally considered responsible for defamation when he negligently fails to establish the truth of the facts or the reliability of the source.

One of the consequences in practice is the fact that the journalist, unlike other professions, cannot obtain insurance for its professional indemnity.

It would be enough to change the rule by explicitly introducing a case of culpability for the crime of defamation and maintaining the hypothesis of intentionality only for those cases in which the journalist acted with bad faith. In the latter case it would be justifiable to hand down a severe punishment.

It is true that this would not prevent civil cases for damages arising from a tort of negligence, but at least it would allow journalists to be insured against professional negligence, as occurs for doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.

It seems to me a principle of legal culture that would limit the judicial, economic and emotional “barbarity” faced by today’s journalists.

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