Last Updated: Friday, 29 August 2014, 14:18 GMT

Italy: Solidarity with a Newspaper Director Under Home Arrest For Defamation

Publisher Article 19
Publication Date 30 November 2012
Cite as Article 19, Italy: Solidarity with a Newspaper Director Under Home Arrest For Defamation, 30 November 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/50bf576a2.html [accessed 30 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

ARTICLE 19 is appalled by the decision of the Italian prosecution authorities to enforce Il Giornale newspaper director, Alessandro Sallusti's prison sentence for defamation, and place him under house arrest and call on the president to pardon him.

In 2011 and 2012, three journalists and three newspaper directors were sentenced to imprisonment for defamation in Italy. Italy is the only European Union country where courts impose prison sentences on journalists for defamation.

Defamation is a crime in Italy. The Criminal Code was adopted in 1930 under the fascist government of Mussolini, when freedom of expression was not seen or protected as a human right. The aim of all criminal defamation laws then was to make criticism against monarchs a criminal offence and to silence dissent. The provisions on insult and defamation do not provide for protection of the media where they are reporting on matters of public interest. Neither is the defence of fair comment on matters of public concern recognised in the code. In addition it provides for imprisonment for defamation, which conflicts with the position of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) which considers this penalty a disproportionate restriction on the right to freedom of expression.

Moreover, under the Italian defamation legislation, the media can receive harsher sanctions than ordinary citizens. Article 595 of the Criminal Code foresees the punishment of imprisonment from six months to three years or a fine for the offence of defamation if it is committed through the press. In addition, the Criminal Code provides for higher protection of the reputation of politicians, including higher sanctions if they have been defamed. This treatment of politicians is in conflict with the liberal democracy principles and the jurisprudence of the ECHR according to which politicians should tolerate more criticism than ordinary citizens.

ARTICLE 19 has twice called on the Italian parliament to repeal provisions of the legislation criminalising defamation.

In 2011 we expressed our concerns to the Italian Parliament about the prison sentences imposed on two Italian journalists and the former director of the Italian newspaper Il Centro, who were all found guilty of defamation. The case concerned an article published in November 2007 by the journalists Walter Nerone and Claudio Lattanzio in the newspaper Il Centro of Pescara about the investigation conducted by the Guardia di Finanza – the Italian financial police - into the then Mayor of Sulmona, Franco La Civita. The article was based on information obtained during court hearings concerning a defamation lawsuit by the mayor against a local entrepreneur. Immediately after the publication of the article, Il Centro published a reply by the mayor who contested the information about the investigation. Despite making use of the right of reply, the mayor sued the journalists and the newspaper director for defamation. In May 2011 the court found that the journalists had failed to prove their allegations and sentenced Nerone and Lattanzio to eight month and 12 month terms of imprisonment without parole, respectively. Luigi Vicinanza received an  eight month prison sentence. In addition, they were sentenced to pay 12,000 Euros (USD 15,600) for compensation and proceeding costs. The sentences have not come into force as the convicted journalists and director have filed appeals and await decisions from a higher court.

In 2012, ARTICLE 19 again called on the Italian parliament to  decriminalise defamation and expressed concerns about the prison sentences given by the Bolzano Tribunal to the journalist, Orfeo Donatini and the former director of the newspaper Alto Adige, Tiziano Marson. The criminal defamation case against Donatini and Marson was initiated by a member of Bolzano's provincial council, Sven Knoll. Knoll complained that the defendants had defamed him in an article published in Alto Adige in 2008. The article, written by Donatini, reported that Knoll had participated in a neo-Nazi summit in Val Passiria, Italy. This information, which first appeared in the national weekly L'Espresso, was taken from a police report.  On 20 June 2012 Donatini and Marson were convicted of 'defamation through the press' and sentenced to four months in prison and were asked to pay 15,000 Euros (18,500 USD) in compensation.

Although MPs submitted proposals for amendments of the defamation provisions in the Criminal Code the Italian Parliament considered seriously the need to reform the law in response to the recent case of Alessandro Sallusti, the director of Il Giornale newspaper. In 2007, an article was printed anonymously under the name 'Dreyfus' in the Libero newspaper, in which Sallusti was editor of at the time. The article in question criticised the decision made by a judge in Turin to grant a 13-year old girl the right to have an abortion. The article also suggested that the judge, the gynaecologist, and the girl's parents deserved the death penalty for allowing the abortion. A court in Milan found Sallusti guilty for libel in June 2011, arguing that because the article was published under a pseudonym, responsibility for the article fell on the editor. Sallusti launched an appeal against what he argued was a repressive judgement.

On 26 September 2012, the Court of Cassation rejected Sallusti's appeal and confirmed the 14-month prison sentence given to him for defamation. The Court found that the facts in the article published by Libero were "false", since "the young girl had not at all been forced to abort, but had herself so decided and the intervention on the part of the judge had been made necessary only by the fact that, though having her mother consent, the girl did not have the one of her father she was not in good relation with and whom she did not wish to communicate her decision to". In addition the Court found that the deprivation of liberty is "exceptional, but legitimate" and arises from the "strong capacity of committing crimes" of the offender, deriving from the "media pillory and libellous campaign" against judge Cocilovo.

On the day of the pronouncement of the court decision, Renato Farina (who was deputy editor of the Libero newspaper at the time) made an admission to parliament that he had written the article and called for a retrial, saying he would take moral and legal responsibility for the article. 

A defamation bill introduced on 28 September 2012 aimed at saving Sallusti from going to prison.  However, members of parliament did not reach an agreement about the new law despite debating it at great length.

In view of the parliamentary debates, public prosecutor's office suspended the execution of Sallusti's sentence for a month. However on 26 November 2012, Milan prosecutors placed him under house arrest. Sallusti announced he would appeal the decision, saying that he is unable to cover breaking news from his house.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the Italian president to pardon Salusti. The deprivation of a journalist of liberty for defamation violates the European Convention on Human Rights. It is concerning that a European Union country continues to use a sanction which is being widely regarded as outdated and disproportionate in liberal democracy. ARTICLE 19 calls for the urgent reform criminal defamation legislation.

Copyright notice: Copyright ARTICLE 19

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