Reporters Without Borders hails the Italian Senate’s rejection on 26 November of the repressive amendment to the law on press offences, approved at a first reading last week (see below). However, the press freedom organization voices its grave concern at the suspension of all debate on the decriminalization of defamation.
"We are relieved that this grotesque episode is over," it said. "The amendment, which was intended to retain prison sentences for defamation only for journalists, would have nullified the senators’ efforts to decriminalize press offences."
"This fight should now be carried through to its end. Members of the Senate cannot possibly be satisfied with the present state of affairs and defamation must be decriminalized as a matter of urgency in a country that is a founding member of the European Union. Fines, intended to replace prison sentences, must be reasonable and proportionate, in accordance with international standards and precedent set in the European Court of Human Rights."
After a fierce campaign by the Italian media, the Senate rejected Article 1 of the bill, which included the controversial amendment, by 123 votes to 29 with nine abstentions. The People of Freedom Party (PdL), one of the instigators of the bill, did not take part in the vote.
25.11.2012 - Senate wants to keep threat of jail sentences hanging over reporters
Reporters Without Borders is appalled by the Italian Senate’s approval of a contradictory amendment to a bill designed to decriminalize defamation. Under the Senate’s amendment, reporters would continue to be exposed to the possibility of imprisonment.
“We count on the members of the Members of the Parliaments to reject this amendment and we urge all of Italy’s parliamentarians to ensure that the current legislation is overhauled in such a way as to promote freedom of information,” Reporters Without Borders said.
After the journalist Alessandro Sallusti received a 14-month jail sentence on a charge of “aggravated defamation” in September, the Parliament began several weeks ago to work on emergency legislation designed to replace jail sentences with fines in cases of defamation.
When a simplified bill (replacing the jail with huge fines) came before the Senate, a sizable majority initially declared to be in favour but on 13 November, in a secret ballot, the Senate approved an amendment for introducing again the jail (by 131 votes to 94 with 20 abstention).
After a week of suspension for seeking a solution agains the jail, on the 22 November, was Senate approved (by 122 votes to 111 with 6 abstention) an amendment proposed by the Northern League and the People of Freedom Party (PDL) to eliminate jail and reduce the penalty for editors to fines of “just” 5,000 to 50,000 euros but only for editors maintaining sentences of up to a year in prison for all the journalists.
The Senate is now due to vote the entire bill on 26 November.
“We are shocked by the inconsistency and fickleness of Italy’s senators on a matter of such importance,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “We are no longer dealing with a judge applying an obsolete law, but with parliamentarians who envisage nothing less than imprisoning journalists in a country that is a European Union member.
“In an act of extraordinary incoherence, the PDL members who were supposed to decriminalize defamation have now made the situation even more complicated. The difference in the treatment accorded to reporters and editors, although jointly responsible from the editorial viewpoint, is discriminatory, probably unconstitutional and totally unacceptable.
“While jail sentences are utterly inconceivable in an EU member country, 50,000-euro fines are no less disturbing. In the current economic context, they pose a threat that is almost as effective as imprisonment and is possibly even more pernicious.
“The PDL and Northern League senators clearly wanted to target journalists, who would be obliged to work with a threat constantly hanging over them. It would be highly likely that the subjects of many investigative reports would abuse this law to suppress any further reporting. It would also have an impact on the already significant level of self-censorship.
“Italy’s government and parliamentarians insist that would be EU member states move forward with the adoption of democratic standards on which they themselves are paradoxically turning their backs. Italy has again shown that legislation is the biggest threat to media freedom within the EU.
“We will refer this latest deplorable example to the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, which is currently working on a report on media freedom in the 27 member states. It is high time to stop this farce. The decriminalization of media offences should be an obligation and priority for the parliaments of all the EU’s members.”
Italy is ranked 61st out of 179 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, which will be updated at the end of January.