Reporters Without Borders

Investigative reporters and websites again threatened by proposed “gag law”

Investigative reporters and websites again threatened by proposed “gag law”

Published on Friday 7 October 2011.
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Leggere in Italiano

Reporters Without Borders strongly condemns the resumption of parliamentary discussion of a government bill that would curb the publication of police wiretaps in the news media and would force websites to publish corrections automatically. Approved by the senate in June 2010, the bill had been shelved because of an outcry from civil society.

Conveniently for the embattled prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, the bill’s adoption was added to the agenda of the chamber of deputies. With a few cosmetic changes that were approved by a legislative committee on 5 October, the final version was due to go before the chamber yesterday and to be voted on next week.

“The latest amendments make no difference,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Restricting the publication of tapped phone conversations in the media to this degree would gravely impede investigative journalism. It has all the hallmarks of a crude and dishonest device for gagging the media. It also has a distinctly political dimension. The government is trying to cover up the prime minister’s sex scandals, many of which have been exposed by the publication of phone transcripts.

“Although bloggers are omitted from the bill’s latest version, online journalists are facing the possibility of having to censor themselves or comply with every request for a correction in order to avoid a 12,000 euro fine. By ignoring the right to information and by making corrections automatic, allowing no possibility of challenging them, the bill is totally out of step with international principles and European legal precedents.

“As a democracy and European Union member, Italy has a duty to defend civil liberties. Italy’s parliamentarians must consider the international impact of their actions and abandon this bill.”

Repressive measures

Under the amendments approved in commission, the media would not be able to publish any transcripts from a telephone tap until judges and lawyers had agreed that they were not “essential for proving the guilt or innocence” of the person being investigated. The publication of any “inappropriate” phone tap material would be punishable by 6 months to 3 years in prison or a fine of 10,000 euros for a reporter and a fine of up to 300,000 euros for an editor.

No account is taken of the public interest and right to information. These measures, which have the declared aim of regulating judicial investigations, will harm media investigations into corruption and organized crime cases, which are often based on telephone taps. Reporters Without Borders urges the Italian government not to take this backward step, one that would undermine the judicial system’s impartiality.

The bill would also allow any individuals who deem themselves to have been defamed by online content to demand the publication of a “statement or correction” within 48 hours. The demand could be sent by email and failure to comply could result in a 12,000 euro fine. The bill’s original version concerned anyone posting online, including bloggers, but this caused such an outcry that the amended version concerns only “professional” websites.

The vagueness of this clause continues to be very worrying. Worse still, the measure is automatic. Websites are given no opportunity to dispute the demand for a correction before a judge on the grounds of accuracy or bad faith on the plaintiff’s part.

Straying from European standards

Reporters Without Borders points out that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that penalties cannot be automatically imposed when matters of public interest are concerned. The European Court has also ruled that the right to information must prevail in coverage of judicial investigations or the publication of phone taps. Only a court can weigh the right to privacy against the public interest to be derived from their publication.

The Italian authorities know full well that the right to freedom of expression applies to the Internet as they reaffirmed this principle in the final version of the telecommunications agency AGCOM’s regulations for online copyright protection.

Protests

Many journalists and bloggers demonstrated against the bill on 5 October in Rome, some of them with “sticky notes” over their mouths in protest against this “gag law.” The journalists threatened to strike if the government does not back down, and to appeal to Italy’s constitutional court or to the European Court of Human Rights.

The same day, Wikipedia blocked access to all 800,000 entries in its Italian- language version in protest against the bill. Anyone trying to access a Wikipedia article found this statement: “The obligation to publish on our site corrections required by the law, without even the right to discuss and verify the claim, is an unacceptable restriction of the freedom and independence of Wikipedia.”

Reporters Without Borders supports these protests, which have resumed the ones staged in July 2010 against the bill’s first version. The organization also points out that Franck La Rue, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, called on the Italian government to abandon this bill on 13 July 2010.

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