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Italy. The most dangerous news by Ossigeno. August 2016

This monthly review of acts of intimidation in Italy is 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 

In August 2016, Ossigeno per l’Informaaione verified 45 cases of probable threats, intimidation and abuse against journalists, bloggers and other media workers in Italy.
After thorough scrutiny , the staff judged as credible 10 episodes against media professionals (6 men, 3 women and 1 n/d). The Observatory documented these episodes, publicised them and added the names of those threatened to its table of victims of serious violations of freedom of expression and of the press. This table, which is available online, see LINK, lists 2933 names, 260 of which were added during the first 244 days of 2016.

Each episode has been fully investigated and analyzed. Each has been made public by the Observatory with news, analysis and commentary published on the web site and disseminated  through weekly newsletters in Italian and English. The most relevant cases were also signaled to press rooms of specific media  through targeted press releases.
For this purpose Ossigeno has published 11 original news stories including 6 of incidents of threats or abuse. Oxygen also has produced the monthly report for ECPMF about threats to journalists in Italy published in Italian, English and French.

Ten journalists and bloggers have faced threats, intimidation, discrimination and other abuses even in August, that is during the month when most of Italy goes on holiday and to every activity a break is granted. It is obvious that those who are willing to use violence, to bend the law at will in order to hinder freedom of information, in order to prevent journalists to collect and disseminate bothersome information, never go on holiday.

It is a matter of fact and it helps explain what happened in Italy in the first half of 2016.

Report on monitoring from January to June 2016

Each month, between January and June 2016, Ossigeno has examined on average 148 reports of threats and abuses against journalists, bloggers, commentators and Italian publishers. After careful vetting, the Observatory has deemed true and caused by journalistic activities, on average, 37 per month. The Observatory estimates that this sample is representative of 10 percent of the total for Italy, and perhaps even less.

From these episodes an obvious fact arises that contradicts the common belief that these abuses are the work of mobsters and criminals, at least for the most part, and that they occur only in the darkest areas of Calabria and Sicily, where the gangs control the territory inch by inch. This belief feeds a fatalism that is expressed by this sentence: “What can we do? There’s the mafia!”. Certainly, the gangs do their part, which is no small one, but this is not enough to explain the size and spread of the phenomenon. Meanwhile, acts of intimidation occur from the Alps to Monte Lauro (see the map on the home page of Ossigeno) and are mostly respectable “white collar” authors that adopt these behaviors harmful of the public interest, encouraged by the certainty of impunity and with the advantage of their strong position and legal guarantees, regulations and unfair practices. Rules that Parliament knows well, and has for a long time, but does not want to correct, so as not to give up an easy way of conditioning and limiting freedom of information. A practice which politicians and public administrators alike also choose to use.

In the coming weeks Ossigeno will delve deeper in the incidents of August and will give account analytically and in detail, as it did for those that occurred in the months and years prior.

This report, however, is devoted to the analysis of the trend that emerged in the first half of 2016.

DATA FROM JANUARY-JUNE 2016 – In the first six months of 2016, Ossigeno per l’Informazione has examined 890 reports of threats, acts of intimidation and abuse made in Italy against journalists, bloggers and other media professionals. After an in-depth and rigorous examination demanded by its painstaking method of monitoring (see LINK), the Observatory has deemed credible 221 of these 890 episodes. These are the number of attacks against as many press operators: 153 men, 37 women and 31 others classified according to their duties, and not by gender. The names of these 221 operators of the media and the details of the acts of intimidation they have suffered have been added to the Table of Names by Ossigeno, that is, to the public list (see LINK) of the Italian victims of these violations of press freedom.

Ossigeno updates this list every week, where, from 2006 to June 30, 2016, as the Counter published on the homepage of the observatory, there have been 2894 names inserted.

In July 2016 Ossigeno identified an additional 29 media workers affected by these serious violations and added their names to the table. As such, on July 31 the counter reached 2923.

Each violation is classified based on the type of crime or unlawful act committed. In addition, each of the events checked is documented in detail and this information is made available to everyone through the multilingual online broadcast for free.

The most serious cases are reported to the institutions and international organizations.

These are the numbers for all the major categories of assault

Physical Aggressions 41 (18,55%)
Warnings 78 (35,29%)
Damages 5 (2,26%)
Lawsuits 85 (38,46%)
Obstacles to Information 12 (5,43%)

These are the numbers for all the major categories of threat

Mild Physical Aggressions 39 (17,56%)
Serious Physical Aggressions 1 (0,45%)
Explosion or bomb 1 (0,45%)
Discrimination and Arbitrary Exclusion 21 (9,50%)
Spoken warning in front of third parties 3 (1,36%)
Threats on Facebook and other social networks 15 (6,79%)
Hacker attack 6 (2,71%)
Insults 10 (4,52%)
Threat letter or other written warnings 7 (3,17%)
Death Threats 6 (2,71%)
Personal threats 4 (1,81%)
Signs or writings 3 (1,36%)
Threat Phone Call 3 (1,36%)
Damages to personal possessions and tools 4 (1,81%)
Car or House Arson Attack 1 (0,45%)
Law Abuse 19 (8,60%)
Arbitrary publication of court documents 3 (1,36%)
Unwarranted lawsuit 45 (20,36%)
Unwarranted lawsuit by a Public Prosecutor 5 (2,26%)
Unwarranted citation for damages 13 (5,88%)
Admonitions  2 (0,90%)
Obstacles to information 10 (4,52%)

NEWS – Between January and June 2016 Ossigeno has produced and published 573 original news (95 per month) of which 374 in Italian and 199 in English. It has released twenty weekly newsletters in Italian and twenty-two in English and has produced (in Italian) twelve issues of the new web weekly, which presents and analyzes key facts. Ossigeno has also produced and distributed six monthly analytical reports for the ECPMF project supported by the European Commission. The monthly reports have been published in Italian, English and French.

WHY SO MANY NEWS – The newsletter is an essential element of the monitoring and advocacy activities by Ossigeno. The newsletter is a very demanding task, both for the volume of information that needs to be processed, both because the issues at hand are at high risk of retaliation, and because economic resources are scarce. This makes it necessary to entrust the organization and the legal responsibility to volunteers who agree to answer personally to any request for damages. But the newsletter is necessary. Without it, everything that happens in Italy in this field would be little known.

In fact, inexplicably, the Italian media publishes incidents of threats and other serious violations documented by Ossigeno only to the extent of one every hundred and when they do so they do not connect analogous episodes, they do not provide a picture of the situation, do not indicate causes of recurrent threats, do not produce analyses, do not indicate the solutions advanced in the field so as to reduce risks. Usually, newspapers and web, radio and television news broadcasters refer only those acts of intimidation that sometimes affect well-known journalists or those of its newsoutlets or their own circle or attacks of extreme gravity that would receive the same attention even if the target were not a journalist.

THE TREND – The number of the threatened is in line with the previous year, which ended in December at 528. It should be remembered that this figure was influenced almost by one-fifth by a single incident for which more than a hundred names of journalists were added: those judicial reporters, who had covered the investigation known as “Mafia Capitale”, charged by the Criminal Chamber of Rome, an association to which many criminal lawyers adhere. However, a marked tendency was noted not to denounce the threats. The Observatory has been studying this phenomenon with particular attention.

The relationship between physical threats and spurious lawsuits is six to four. Warnings are the lion’s share (four in ten). The libel suits for damages are two out of ten and to these the civil cases for damages must be added (one every four criminal cases for defamation).

Then there are the more subtle acts of intimidation, those which are not even capable of being prosecuted because they occur without committing one of the classic offenses or offenses with which usually people are intimidated (threats, insults, warnings, assaults, damages, etc.) since the adopted behaviors that in itself appear legitimate, but prevent intentionally someone to exercise those rights of speech, expression and the press guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution. An example is the discrimination which prevents unwelcome reporters to attend press conferences or other events. Those who deny accreditation to a journalist who does not glorify them, those who call a press conference and let out the door a reporter while bringing others in is undeniably violating the rights provided by Article 21, but the codes do not provide for penalties.

In other words, the right of information is easily broken because it is not protected criminally, like other rights. These episodes are indicated by Ossigeno under the category “Obstacles to Information”, which is still not very crowded because there is little awareness of this kind of violation. But this kind of violations allow to understand, better than others, one of the most serious shortcomings of the current legislative system in place in terms of press freedom protection. We will devote specific attention to the issue soon.

THE JUDGEMENT – The Italian situation is still quite serious. There are no signs of improvement, nor are there on the horizon appropriate initiatives aimed at reducing the intimidating pressures.

Intimidation and abuse of judicial procedures (in particular, defamation charges) are still very effective tools, low-risk, easy and ready to use and can be deployed on a large scale and without fear of serious consequences, by anyone who wants to prevent the publication of unwelcome information about them.

THE COURAGE – In this bleak landscape the only comforting fact is that, despite everything, still today, many journalists, bloggers, opinion makers, small publishers have the courage to defy the danger, the retaliation. They represent a courageous minority within a category that, overall, does not show the same courage, moving among various regulatory and economic difficulties that the crisis has seriously exacerbated. The Italian journalists have also lost power in their relationships with publishers, a fact that is also reflected in the way and in the possibility of treating the news that is more sensitive and more at risk of libel complaint.

THE DIFFICULTIES – The majority of Italian journalists, more than 80 percent, is not backed by a publisher committed to protect it and to pay the legal expenses to defend their good right to publish news that are both true and in the public interest. In particular, in order to address the proceedings for defamation which are a prevalent intimidating practice, and that, nine times out of ten, as recognized by the judges after years of trial (and related costs) are false and spurious. Many journalists who dare to challenge this risk, and a rather high one at that, and who end up on trial for publishing information and comments unwelcome to powerful people, will have to go to trial at their own expense.

THE SILENCE – The news blackout on these events, which is almost total, and the lack of attention by public authorities accentuate the difficulties and create a climate of fear. This explains the tendency of victims not to report the abuses, and to suffer in silence. This explains the temptation of many journalists and editors to take refuge in self-censorship to prevent the risk of retaliation.

Why is this happening? The latest episodes also confirm such analysis.

THE CAUSES – At the origin of the Italian problems there is the general low regard for freedom of information and ignorance of the serious consequences that the restriction of this freedom has on the participation of citizens to the public life.

There are laws which are severely unbalanced, laws that do not punish the violations of the right to inform and be informed. There are real gaping holes in the criminal law. These are unjustifiable public failures.

THE FAILURES – The codes allow penalties for those who abuse the right to go to court, of those who press false charges or promote causes for compensation without reasonable grounds. But these rules are not applied frequently, although it would be easy and proper, for example, to contest automatically the crime of libel to those who file a lawsuit against a journalist or for claiming damages when it is blatantly false. It would be easy to condemn those who made a claim for damages without justifiable cause and pay a sum as compensation to the accused. It may be possible to ask to account for their misconduct, ethically dubious, to their legal representatives that bundle citations for libel containing untrue statements The use of public resources by administrators could be systematically challenged, since these come at the expense of the local authorities that they represent, and as such instrumentally press charges against newspapers and journalists who dare to criticize their work. It would be possible, even dutiful. But it usually does not happen. These penalties are foreseen but are not applied, these behaviors are inexplicably and passively tolerated.

LASSAIZ-FAIRE – The lassaiz-faire prevails and as such resignation spreads and the space for freedom of expression and the press is reduced. Many victims accept the situation without rebelling, the world of information avoids risky topics, the most important news for citizens become taboo.

THE DISBELIEF – It’s hard to believe, but as long as Ossigeno was not able with the numbers, with the facts, with the documented story of thousands of real episodes, that these things worthy of authoritarian countries happen in Italy, no one wanted to believe it. Many denied it. And even now many do not want to believe it, those who would have the power to change the laws, to determine more just and fair judicial procedures, do not surrender while facing the evidence, does not draw the necessary conclusions.

A PARADIGM, A LAW – Some failures and some decisions of Parliament appear severe, unreasonable. But produce no scandals, the newspapers do not mention them and, therefore, the citizens do not even know how the institutions leave these problems to languish for decades, proposing new bills to solve all aspects of the issue. But then, along the way, these sketches are transformed into new gags and possible remedies never reach the finish line.

The paradigm of this approach is given by the Costa Bill, presented in 2013 in order to abolish imprisonment for those guilty defamation and which has been for over a year irreparably shelved in Parliament, as happened in previous years to other similar legislative projects. Due to various mishaps, this bill will most likely never come to deliverance, and even if it were to happen, what would see the light would be a text replete with contradictions. The remedy would be worse than the disease. Yet, in the face of calls and periodic requests to intervene to prevent serious and blatant injustice, in the face of calls and of the insistent alarms launched by European and international institutions, the government and some institutions still make a shield of this bill to say that Parliament is working with the right proposals. It would be difficult to use these arguments if newspapers covered constantly and consistently the issues related to freedom of the press.

In truth, Parliament is not completely inert. In the first half of 2016 it dealt with press freedom, but not to abolish the sentence of imprisonment for journalists, but – indeed – to bring the maximum penalty for defamation from the current six years to nine years. The Senate, in fact, wanted to introduce the aggravating circumstance of the crime of defamation if committed against politicians, civil servants and magistrates. The paradox: to vote on this bill was that same Senate Judiciary Committee that, since July 2015, buried in a drawer the rules to abolish imprisonment for journalists.

A MATTER FOR PROFESSIONALS AND EXPERTS – Press freedom concerns everyone, but in Italy the citizens think that it only concerns the experts. And it is even more impressive to observe the level indifference and incompetence with which most journalists talk about it.

But will it always be so? It seems unlikely that this situation could be sustained for much longer. There are some signs that make it think possible. First, there is an increased international attention to the violence and abuse that prevent the exercise of freedom of expression and the press in Western countries. The Italian case is therefore followed with more continuity, as a great paradox, as the case school that reveals most clearly one of the greatest contradictions of modern democracies, where censorship was banned but continues to manifest itself in other forms: as a disguised censorship. It happens, in fact, that in a free and democratic country, a fundamental right, the right to speech and expression, protected by the Constitution, can be denied, trampled upon, hampered so as not to talk about it, without adequate law enforcement efforts.

Other democratic countries now consider Italy as a sick man and, finally, they began to wonder if even inside their own borders freedom of information suffers from the same disease. The virus of this disease was isolated and studied in Italy, but probably it has spread to countries that observe and judge Italy by believing to be superior and behaving smugly.

In Italy this evil has spread and rooted silently, without obvious symptoms. If today it is discussed, if today we speak of the serious consequences it produces it is only because in-depth expert analysis have been carried out and a diagnostic kit was prepared. Those who are afflicted by this disease must know so and must be cured. Because it can be cured, if there is the will to do so: it is possible to go at the root of the problem, take the remedies that Ossigeno has been indicating for some time and which are known to European and international organizations. These medicines are bitter, but they are effective and decisive.


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