Italy: Reform could introduce fines for needless defamation suits against journalists

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

Italy Infographic Website

#IndexAwards2015: Journalism nominee Lirio Abbate

Journalism nominee, Lirio Abbate

Journalism nominee Lirio Abbate

Lirio Abbate is an investigative journalist working for the weekly news magazine L’Espresso. Abbate specialises in investigating the criminal activity and political connections of Italian mafia groups, from whom he is routinely subjected to violent threats.

“In Italy a synonym of censorship is ‘threat’: the concrete threats and intimidation that criminals use to discourage journalists from telling the truth about underworld activities. Unfortunately there are journalists who yield to the mafia. But there are reporters who do their jobs well and are threatened. I fight against the mafia through my articles and my books,” he told Index via email.

He is in his eighth year of living under 24-hour protection by armed police and travelling in an armoured car. Police took this step in 2007 after intercepting phone calls discussing plans to kill the journalist – soon after, his police escort caught men placing a bomb under his car.

“The mafia in Sicily, where I began my career, is strong and in the last 30 years politicians, priests, labour leaders, judges, policemen and journalists have been killed,” Abbate said. “The attacks against my life failed thanks to the Palermo police who told me it was necessary for me to leave my home because of the constant danger.”

The attempted murder was retaliation for Abbate’s co-authored book, I Complici (The Accomplices), one of four Abbate has written about mafia groups since 1993. The most recent, Fimmine Ribelli or Rebel Women (2013), illustrates the severe plight of women living under the sway of the ’Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia.

Through his investigative work, Abbate has helped expose complicit public figures who turn a blind eye to the mafia’s activities. His 2012 article The Four Kings of Rome brought public attention to drug- and people-trafficking carried out by Rome’s mafia groups – and also gained Abbate the attention of the mafia bosses. One of Rome’s “kings”, Massimo Carminati, was heard on a wiretap saying “We must put a stop to that reporter from L’Espresso”.

“In a few days my new book will be published. In it, I’m reporting about the inquiry known as ‘mafia capitale’ that judges have conducted in Rome. It’s the story about the worrying collusion between criminals and Rome’s city administrators. It’s a mafia system that is very well rooted and organised, and able to deal with and take possession of commercial and entrepreneurial activities at every level, using violence and corruption as its main weapons,” Abbate wrote to Index.

In addition to his journalistic work, Abbate is a leading member of a press freedom NGO called Ossigeno per l’informazione or Oxygen via information. He has also founded an anti-mafia literary festival called Trame, which takes place annually in the heart of Calabrian mafia territory.

Abbate’s extensive work linking Rome’s mafia groups and neofascist organisations put him back on the radar of Italy’s mafia networks in 2014. In September, a suspiciously parked car outside his office was searched and found to contain a high-caliber bullet, with a note saying “This is for Abbate”.

Then, one evening in November, Abbate found himself followed while being driven home from work by his police escort. The tailgating car was so close that when Abbate’s car stopped, the driver behind rammed into him, then sped off in the opposite direction.

In 2014 Abbate was named an information hero by Reporters Without Borders, and was also given the Giuseppe Fava award for his work on organised crime.

“Freedom of expression is the key principle of my work,” Abbate wrote. “It’s an honour to be nominated and it’s proof that we’re on the right track, that reporting is necessary to free ourselves from criminal systems that slacken and undermine our society.”

This article was posted on 18 February 2015 at