March 22. 2023. 6:20

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Italy must decriminalise defamation to better protect journalists – report

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called for journalists facing defamation suits to be better protected after police stormed the Domani newsroom following a press defamation complaint made by Labour Ministry Undersecretary Claudio Durigon (Lega/ID).

Police stormed the newsroom to seize the print version of an article written by Giovanni Tizian and Nello Trocchia that was published online on 3 March, and denounces Durigon’s alleged ties to organised crime when he was an MP and a prominent figure of the General Labour Union in 2018.

“While Domani reported on the politician’s controversial relationships in the public interest, the police action in the media’s premises was rather about intimidation than necessity. We stand with Domani and will continue following any further proceedings,” the nonprofit NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) told EURACTIV Italy.

On its website, Domani’s editorial board wrote that lawsuits are being used to intimidate the free press in Europe, but pointed to their frequent use in Italy, including by government officials. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni (FDI/ECR) recently filed two defamation lawsuits.

Meloni filed her first suit in 2020 against writer Roberto Saviano after he called the then-leader of Fratelli d’Italia a “bastard” during a televised debate on immigration.

Her second suit targeted Domani’s editor and deputy editor for an article published in October for allegedly endorsing a businessman and newly elected Fratelli d’Italia to be among the suppliers of medical equipment for the Italian healthcare system during the pandemic.

In its report, RSF says that Meloni’s government worries part of the journalistic community, adding that respecting press freedom and EU values would have to come with decriminalising defamation.

“Parliament must pass new legislation to remove prison sentences for defamation which were declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court. This would also be in line with the recommendation against abusive lawsuits (SLAPPs) adopted a year ago by the European Commission,” said RSF.

Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, known as SLAPPs, are often superficial and content-free lawsuits based on exaggerated and most often abusive claims designed to intimidate, professionally discredit and harass recipients. The ultimate goal is to blackmail and silence them.

In RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, Italy ranks 58th, the second worst out of all Western European countries with the exception of Greece.

Press freedom appears to be threatened by legislative loopholes, economic difficulties, and conflicts of interest. Several journalists investigating mafia, corruption, and extremist groups are threatened and even physically assaulted. Around 20 journalists currently live under armed protection.

“Italian media professionals also need systemic measures – such as anti-SLAPP legislation – which will allow them to work freely and avoid self-censorship”, RSF explained.

The Council of Europe, in its annual report on the right to information, wrote that Italy has not only failed to decriminalise defamation, but its new coalition government has given its blessing to legal proceedings aimed at silencing those who criticise it.

European Media Freedom Act

The European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) which was proposed by the Commission in September, was mentioned on Thursday by Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano – a journalist and former director of Tg2, one of Rai’s newscasts.

The proposed regulation provides guarantees against political interference in editorial decisions and against surveillance, emphasises independence and stable funding of public service media, transparency of media ownership and allocation of state advertising.

“The free manifestation of thought is the lintel of a democratic and liberal society, it is among the fundamental freedoms”, Sangiuliano told MPs sitting in the lower chamber’s Culture and Transportation Committees.

The text should take into account the differences between national systems and that EU and member state competencies should be clearly divided, he said.

According to him, the EU regulation should also set up a European Media Services Committee “whose functioning is still unclear”. Also missing, according to him, are the issues of services, the digital market, and the code of good practice on disinformation.

(Federica Pascale |

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