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Members of the Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE), with the support of the coalition’s Italian group and Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), express solidarity with Roberto Saviano who attended the first hearing in the proceedings for aggravated defamation initiated against him by current Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. We are seriously concerned about the criminal proceedings initiated in 2021 by the current Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the leader of Fratelli d’Italia. Under the current provisions on defamation, Roberto Saviano risks imprisonment for his criticism of Meloni during a TV programme.
Such accusations act as a gag on freedom of expression, a fundamental right enshrined in the Italian Constitution and international law. No journalist or writer should be prosecuted for expressing their honest opinion on issues of public interest. A criminal defamation suit is not an acceptable response in a democracy, all the more so when it comes from a high ranking representative of the institution. This threat to Saviano reveals, once again, the degree of the abuse of defamation suits or SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) in Italy.
The lawsuit for aggravated defamation was initiated by current Prime Minister Meloni in November 2021, in response to comments made by Roberto Saviano during the episode of the TV programme Piazza Pulita which aired on 3rd December 2020. Saviano’s comment was formulated in response to the controversial rhetoric employed in recent years by the two political leaders to describe the migration emergency in the Mediterranean.
In November 2020, the NGO ship Open Arms rescued a number of displaced individuals from a shipwreck, caused by a collapsing dinghy in the Mediterranean Sea. The delayed rescue by the Italian authorities had prevented timely assistance to the survivors who were in dire need of specialist medical care, including a six-month-old infant who later died on the Open Arms. Following Piazza Pulita’s coverage of the investigation on the authorities’ delayed response, Roberto Saviano had referred to both Meloni, the then leader of Fratelli d’Italia and the Lega secretary, Matteo Salvini as ‘bastards’.
The possibility that Roberto Saviano, in his role as a writer and journalist, could incur a prison sentence for expressing his opinion on a politically sensitive issue, such as the treatment of migrants in Italy, once again draws attention to the serious inadequacies of Italian libel laws. The right to freedom of expression is enshrined in Article 21 of the Italian Constitution. Furthermore, international law and jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) guarantees that the right to freedom of expression extends to statements and ideas that may ‘offend, shock or disturb‘ and that opinions are entitled to enhanced protection under the guarantee of the right to freedom of expression. Further, the ECtHR has clarified that public figures and, in particular, political actors must tolerate higher levels of criticism and scrutiny given their public position within society, and that in such cases criminal prosecution has a chilling effect and is violating the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by Article 10 ECHR.
Those who express their opinion on matters of public interest should not fear nor be exposed to intimidation, conviction, or imprisonment. On this last point, the Italian Constitutional Court has made its position clear, urging lawmakers to initiate a general reform of the legislation on defamation that would bring Italian legislation in line with the standards of European and international law. With the ruling of 9 June 2020 and the decision of 22 June 2021, the Court, in line with previous judgments of the ECtHR, declared prison sentences in cases of defamation in the press unconstitutional. However, the provision of prison sentences remains in place for cases of ‘exceptional gravity’. In accordance with such provisions, Saviano still faces a custodial sentence because the formal charge is aggravated defamation.
At the conclusion of the first hearing at the Criminal Court of Rome on 15 November 2022, it was decided that the trial will be re-assigned to a new judge and adjourned to 12 December. The current Minister of Infrastructure, Matteo Salvini, has filed a petition to become a civil plaintiff. The Lega leader has also a pending defamation lawsuit initiated against Roberto Saviano in 2018: its first hearing is scheduled for 1 February 2023. Further, on 28 January 2023 another defamation trial instigated by Gennaro Sangiuliano, current Minister of Culture, awaits Roberto Saviano.
At the end of the first hearing in the Meloni case on 15th November, Saviano reiterated the central role that writers play in a democratic society: “My tools are words. I try, with the word, to persuade, to convince, to activate”. Exiting the courtroom, he argued that: “Democracy is based not only on a consensus that can lead to winning the electoral lottery, but exists if dissent and criticism are allowed. Without such premises there is no democratic oxygen”.
The perilous situation in which Roberto Saviano finds himself must also be taken into account. Life under escort, already a cause of marginalisation for journalists, was only necessary due to threats made against Saviano by organised crime and these threats should not be amplified through further threats made by high ranking politicians.
Joining the dissent expressed by Italian and European journalists’ associations, the undersigned organisations call on Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni to immediately withdraw the charges against Roberto Saviano. We support the recommendation formulated by Italian and European civil society and international organisations to the new parliament to act against vexatious complaints and to quickly adopt a comprehensive reform of both civil and criminal defamation laws in Italy. Finally, we urge Italy to bring forward legislation to tackle the use of SLAPPs in line with the EU Anti-SLAPP Recommendation of 27 April 2022. The Italian Government is also urged to give its full support to the Anti-SLAPP Directive as proposed by the European Commission.
OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
Access Info Europe
Blueprint for Free Speech
Civil Liberties Union For Europe
European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights
Index on Censorship
International Press Institute
Irish PEN/ PEN na hÉireann
Justice & Environment
Legal Human Academy
The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation
Whistleblowing International Network
Italy in January-September 2016 had the highest number of incidents of threats against journalists and media outfits in the EU, a study by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights showed Thursday. Read the full article
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.”
This article was originally posted at Index on Censorship
For weeks, Rome has been transfixed by the spectacle of the “Capital Mafia” trial, which began on 5 November. The prosecutors are laying bare an alleged network of corrupt relationships between politicians and criminal syndicates in the city. The scandal involves the misappropriation of funding that was destined for city services, according to prosecutors.
But the biggest surprise wasn’t in that “Captial Mafia” courtroom, it was at the district attorney’s office where a complaint filed by the criminal lawyers association denounced 97 journalists for violating the secrecy of investigations, which is a crime under article 114 of the country’s code of criminal procedure. Italy’s foremost and well-respected crime and courts reporters, as well as 24 chief editors, also stand accused of breaching the ethical norms of their profession.
The accusations against the journalists and editors stem from two waves of arrests — December 2014 and June 2015 — of defendants in the “Captial Mafia” trial. The coverage of the arrests and subsequent investigations generated 278 articles across 14 Italian newspapers. The published reports included details gleaned from arrest warrants of 81 people, including politicians, public administrators and alleged members of the mafia. The contents of the warrants were known to the police, prosecutors, the accused and their lawyers, but still formally subject to publication limits until the conclusion of investigations.
The lawyers that made the accusations believe that the journalists should have rigidly respected the limits and that the facts should not have been reported even if they were known to the parties involved.
Supporters of the journalists maintain that the case is too important and that it is vital for newspapers and journalists to inform Italians as fully as possible, especially in connection with a scandal of such vast proportions. Some see it as a form of legal intimidation that cannot be punished and a move to force the case against the defendants to be dismissed in the public mind as a journalistic fiction.
“We are facing a clear attempt to muzzle the press and the journalists. The journalists denounced have reported news that were not covered by the code,” Raffaele Lorusso, general secretary of National Federation of the Italian Press (FNSI), told Index on Censorship. “It is as if these lawyers want to tell to journalists: “Do not write more news concerning our direct beneficiaries otherwise you will be sued.”
One of the defendant’s lawyers denigrated Lirio Abbate, an investigative journalist and 2015 Index on Censorship Journalism Award nominee, who reported mafia activities. For his trouble, Abbate lives under 24-hour police protection due to death threats.
Currently, the decision to pursue charges against the journalists rests with the Court of Rome. Those involved could potentially face trial and a disciplinary penalty.
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