Italy might soon introduce fines against vexatious defamation lawsuits against journalists, as part of a large-scale reform being discussed by the parliament.
On 10 March, the chamber of deputies passed a set of recommendations to reform civil proceedings, which would include penalties to discourage the use of libel suits to intimidate journalists.
The recommendations, called delegation to the government with instructions on the efficiency of civil proceeding and sponsored by ministry of justice Andrea Orlando (Democratic Party) and vice-president of the justice committee Franco Vazio, of the same party, would punish plaintiffs who are proved to be in mala fides, i.e. knowing their claims to be false, by making them reimburse journalists an amount between two and five times the trial’s expenses.
The recommendations are what Italian law calls a “delegated law”. With them, the parliament delegates the government to legislate in its place – but only following a set of restrictions and recommendations, which are what the chamber of deputies approved on 10 March.
Before the government turns them into law, the recommendations now need to be approved by the Italian senate, which has not yet released a timeline for debating the recommendations.
If the senate approves the recommendations, the government will have an 18-month window to enforce them. However, according to Italian law, no individual minister is in charge of the measure, and there won’t be a backlash against the government if it fails to take action.
Nevertheless, president of the National Federation of Italian Press Giuseppe Giulietti has expressed satisfaction about the recommendations, saying in a statement it is a “relevant first step in the right direction”.
Alberto Spampinato, director of Ossigeno per l’Informazione, an Italian organisation that monitors threats to journalists, also thinks that although the measures aren’t a major step forward, they are a good start.
“The fines would drive down the number of vexatious defamation lawsuits brought against journalists,” Spampinato told Index.
According to data by Ossigeno, defamation lawsuits have become the most used tool to silence journalists in the country.
Journalists have no access to insurance schemes to cover defamation trials expenses in Italy, and only 10% of them can rely on their organisations to cover the costs, making it hard for journalists to afford to be sued for libel.
Ossigeno argues that even the threat of legal action has a chilling effect on the media.
According to Spampinato, an older law had already established fines for these cases. However, as it failed to specify the amount of the fines, judges have been unable to impose any at all.
“It’s important that the parliament has begun to address the issue,” he says.
The vote came just after the chamber of deputies ratified a parliamentary report on the protection of journalists on 3 March.
The report, titled Report on the State of Information and on the Condition of Journalists threatened by Organised Crime, was sponsored by MP Claudio Fava and backed by the anti-mafia parliamentary committee, and it calls for further measures to protect journalists from intimidation.
The report recommends differentiating between malicious falsehood and defamation, and to make it “a criminal offence to punish any threat, pressure, and violent or damaging behaviour to limit the press’s freedom”.
Ossigeno’s Spampinato says both would be important measures.
“Just like when a patient dies, we don’t always blame the surgeon for it, we must be able to distinguish between a journalist’s mistakes and the cases in which he disseminates falsehood intentionally,” he said.
He also agreed with the report that in most cases it should be a criminal offence to limit press freedom. He argued that the right to be informed is the only fundamental human right not protected by criminal law – not just in Italy but also in other European countries.
The report was approved by the chamber unanimously but isn’t a binding resolution.
However, Ossigeno thinks it is an important milestone, calling it a “historic vote” on its website.
“The vote on the committee’s report paves the way for other proposals,” explained Spampinato. “MPs will introduce new measures to protect journalists.”