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How protect journalists without censoring the news. What to do

Mafia, information and threatened journalists. What to do to.  The Ossigeno proposals

These proposals have been formulated in February 2015 by “Ossigeno per l’Informazione Onlus” to the Parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission chaired by the MP Rosi Bindi and are illustrated in the research on the topic: “The function of the media in relation with the Mafia and similar criminal organizations, in Italy, in traditional areas of settlement, in central and northern regions, and abroad. Analysis of the role of investigative journalism for the knowledge of prevention and fight against mafia-type organized crime and investigation on possible implications of collusion related to journalism and publishing.” The research was conducted by Ossigeno on behalf of the Parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission, which in 2014-2015 carried out a inquiry on the relationship between Mafia and information and on the journalists who are threatened because of their work.

 

In Italy it is difficult to fully exercise freedom of expression and carry out independently and in a critical way the information activities, reporting activities and investigative journalism without incurring into conditioning retaliations.

Intimidation, threats, discrimination, abuse and retaliation strike every year hundreds of reporters, editors, bloggers, photojournalist, video reporters so as to prevent the collection and dissemination of information of public interest and, among these, many incisive information on the activities of the organized crime.

This veil weakens the fight against the Mafia and limits the participation of citizens to public life. Therefore, there is a need for urgent action to reduce the strong pressures on the media.

Therefore, the proposals advanced by Ossigeno per L’Informazione in 2012 and reproduced in the preceding pages, remain valid and are renewed.

Moreover, based on the evidence presented and suggestions collected through interviews, it is appropriate to complement the preceding proposals with the ones that follow.

Legal position of journalists. It is necessary to strengthen it. Therefore it would be appropriate to fill in some legal loopholes, by recognizing that:

–        journalists play a public interest function protected by law;

–        journalistic information is a public good;

–        citizens have the right to be informed and newspapers to inform in accordance with the principles set out in international treaties ratified by Italy;

–        whomever obstructs freedom of information can incur specific sanctions;

–        whomever commits crimes or offenses in order to hinder the freedom of information will respond to aggravating circumstances.

Protection measures and assistance procedures. For the benefit of those who suffer intimidation and threats in the world of information, these need to be more extensive and, above all, encoded into law following a reflection involving all stakeholders. The current of spontaneous practices is producing many little monsters. These allow for personalized solutions, distractions and opportunistic behavior that leave the problem on the shoulders of the threatened. Therefore, on the issue, we specifically propose:

–        a national service composed of experts and representatives of the category by which to submit cases of intimidation promptly to the institutions of journalists and publishers;

–        the organic and ongoing continuation of the Working Committee on the Mafia and Information established by the Parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission, which in 2012 and 2014 has called to hear dozens of journalists affected by intimidation;

–        to stimulate and support the creation of a public portal through which to learn about the articles and reports of threatened journalists, as a deterrent device of proven efficiency. The dissemination of such information would make threats useless as it broadens the visibility of the information that is trying to be obscures through violence and abuse;

–        the inclusion of journalists with proven experience on the subject amongst the advisers of the Working Committee of the Commission;

–        the definition of a code of conduct agreed by the directors, publishers and the entire system of information to which to refer to each time a journalist is threatened and is in a situation of probable danger;

–        the integration of the measures of protection offered by the police with the editorial structure, to the extent that it is deemed necessary;

–        measures to ensure visibility and concrete solidarity to those threatened up until the solution of the case that concerns them; initiatives to stimulate the prosecution of the authors of the threats and reach their condemnation. On this matter, the Italian Government has accepted without reserve recommendation n. 54 of the Human Rights Council in Geneva on the protection of journalists under threat from organized crime, claiming that it was “already implemented or being implemented”. Specifically, it is recognized that in Italy the judiciary and the police protection units deployed for threatened journalists are active and efficient, take full account of the complaints and have demonstrated the ability to discover autonomously serious threats through surveys and interceptions and prevent attacks. Yet, many acts of intimidation remain unpunished;

–        to recall the application of the case law of the European Court of Human Rights on defamation that accommodates a large number of appeals against sentences issued by the Italian judiciary. In many cases the courts adopt strict interpretations of the rules with respect to the prerogatives of journalists and bloggers;

–        to study extrajudicial conciliatory solutions to preventive lawsuits, alternatives to court proceedings, even at little or no cost, agreed between the parties following the example of the Press Council successfully tested in various countries;

–        to evaluate the opportunity to establish specialized bodies in charge of prosecuting crimes for the intimidation of journalists and the hampering of freedom of information;

–        to demand that the official institutions publish statistics on the number of journalists under police protection, on the number of journalists who denounce abuses and threats, on the outcome of the relative investigations, on the lawsuits for libel and claims for damages filed against reporters, on the outcome and durations of criminal trials and civil cases;

–        to elicit measures that encourage more transparency so as to identify who actually owns and controls the ownership of newspapers;

–        to develop a specific inquiry on information in Rome and the Lazio region, where the pressure of intimidation is high (is twice as high as the registered value for Milan-Lombardy) and where in the last two years there have been events that have caused serious concern.

 

Methods of investigative reporting.

The work of Italian reporters should be made safer even taking care of the practical arrangements through which they conduct their business. In particular, attention should be paid to the condition of isolation of many journalists who treat the most delicate news, especially those who work in the suburbs, in small towns, in offices made up of just a few units and, sometimes, by a single person, to all precarious journalists, freelancers paid a few euros, without contract and legal protection from the publisher.

Protection must be:

–        legal: Specifically, it is necessary to decriminalize defamation: allow for preliminary mandatory investigations for libel suits and hearings that can filter claims presented in the same way; make economic sanctions proportionate to the economic capabilities of the offender; require those seeking compensation for damage suffered to demonstrate the request’s consistency; impose effective sanctions on who presents specious lawsuits and unfounded or frivolous damage claims;

–        organizational: it is necessary to promote team journalism. For those working outside the newsroom, it is necessary to increase their visibility in other forms when they are treating delicate news in agreement and in sharing with the entire editorial staff. It is possible to accomplish this by adding signatures of other reporters, with editorials, public actions by the editorial boards, and so forth;

–        financial: to support – as an insurance – the unavoidable expenses in the face of danger and abuse, to prevent that an error made in good faith or the fury of a plaintiff could deprive the journalist of the fruit of years of work. It is necessary to allow journalists to adopt a professional insurance as is permitted for other categories, changing the law (in particular, decriminalizing defamation). Furthermore, it is necessary to work to ensure that journalists are not paid and are not deprived of contractual guarantees provided to enable them to exercise their professional autonomy and to resist pressures and blackmail;

–        legal: currently most publishers do not provide legal assistance to journalists. For many journalists this means that a lawsuit, even if unfounded and specious, reduces by thousands of euros their annual income;

–        procedural: the intimidating effect of spurious lawsuits for defamation and unfounded lawsuits for damage claims is a consequence mainly due to the lengthiness of proceedings. It is necessary that, within a predetermined timeframe, complaints pass through a preliminary investigative scrutiny or a filter hearing.

ASP

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