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Defamation. More prison? Senate takes a step back after OSCE protest

Blocked the increase of the penalty from six to nine years in prison. But the danger has not yet ceased

The bad news on the health status of press freedom in Italy, as we explain elsewhere, are the specialty of this report. In Italy these news are many, are important, but many of them can be read only on Ossigeno’s news site. It’s hard to learn them from other media if not for mere mentions, usually to throw water on the fire, so as to say that there is no need to be afraid, that everything is under control. Why? The newspaper editors say that these things are not interesting, they bore readers, depress sales. As such they remain screened from the general public, so much so for those violations of absolute gravity for which the international institutions, as soon as they got wind, raised the alarm, as happened most recently on May 27, when the Representative on Media Freedom of the OSCE, Dunjia Mijatovic made it known to the whole world that the Italian Senate was about to pass a law that would have disregarded all the pledges made by the Italian authorities with the international community. The Senate, in fact, was preparing (and still is preparing) to approve a bill that would increase from six to nine years, the maximum penalty for those found guilty of defamation. This – the OSCE Representative said – “would have a chilling effect, and a harmful one, on investigative journalism.”

As Ossigeno explained, the harshening of the penalty would be possible by introducing a specific aggravating circumstance, a residue of archaic legal systems, which in Italy has not been applied for a long time. The same kind of aggravating circumstance that another bill being examined by the same Senate Judiciary Committee which proposes to abolish it, with a proposal that has already received the consent of both Houses of Parliament and which still awaits a final vote. Even more worrying is the fact that the new bill proposes to apply this aggravated punishment for defamation of individual legislators, public officials, magistrates, political and judicial bodies. “This legislative initiative – the OSCE Representative on Media Freedom commented – is harmful because, in itself, prison sentences are a disproportionate penalty for libel.”

Among other things, in the wake of these statements and the detailed information provided by Ossigeno per l’Informazione to the OSCE, also other international organizations have taken a stand. The fact was reported by organizations such as the EFJ (European Federation of Journalists), AEJ (Association of European Journalists), IPI (International Press Institute) and Index on Censorship as a level 2 alarm (the highest alarm level is 1) on the “Platform for the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists” of the Council of Europe. This means that the Council of Europe will ask for justifications to the Italian Government. The Italian media have not given visibility or importance even to these alarms. While the Italian authorities have not given any explanation.

No one knows how this story will end, since at the political level it is even more surprising. Indeed, as Ossigeno documented, in order to propose even more jail for the defamation and protection of the political and judicial class, the Senate Judiciary Committee has made a coup. It has undermined the bill introduced in 2012, after the scandal for the arrest of the journalist Alessandro Sallusti, to abolish the penalty of imprisonment for defamation and replace it with a fine. That bill, urged by international institutions, was already voted several times by Parliament and is awaiting only the final vote. That text, among other things already contains the aggravating circumstances for politic, administrative or judicial bodies, now called into service and embittered.

It’s a big mess and it confirms three things: how little importance the Government and Parliament attribute to freedom of expression; how public opinion is alien and disinterested to these issues; how much the Italian journalism is inattentive to these issues. A fact also confirmed by the publication of the new annual report of Reporters Sans Frontieres, which this year has ranked Italy yet further down, to the 77th place among 180 nations. Apart from a few rare exceptions, no one has explained why, no one said that the data gathered by Ossigeno for this classification justify the bad performance but not the ranking in the table, because in other countries there is no comparable observatory. Ossigeno stressed this aspect trusting that the time and work of raising awareness manage to do make it understood and promote a similar monitoring abroad.

Fortunately, this demand is gaining momentum also within international institutions. In this sense, on April 13 the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has addressed some recommendations to the 47 member states of the organization, inviting them to monitor threats to journalists and attacks on freedom of information, due to defaults and backward laws. The Committee has suggested the creation of independent permanent observation centers by governments, to strengthen the protection and safety of journalists, and to limit the term of imprisonment only for press offenses inciting violence and racial hatred.

Another useful initiative is that of the European Centre for Press and Freedom of Leipzig (ECPMF; of which Ossigeno is one of the founders), which created the Online Resource Centre on Media Freedom. It is an online documentation center that offers free documents on press freedom produced by associations and organizations across Europe. The platform – which contains sections on the legal instruments for the protection of media freedom in Europe, about the support centers for threatened journalists, about training opportunities, and about awareness campaigns – is designed to promote a documented and inclusive debate and an international vision of the problems of the information world.

This article was extracted from the monthly review of acts intimidation in Italy  produced by Ossigeno per l’Informazione for the European Center for Press and Media Freedom of Leipzig (ECPMF), with the support of the European Union. Read the full Report here

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