Libel convictions face resurgence in Italy

For the second time in the past couple years, Italian journalists have faced jail time for defamation

Three Italian journalists were sentenced to prison terms Friday in Milan for libeling a prosecutor. Andrea Marcenaro and Riccardo Arena of the newsweekly Panorama were sentenced to 12 months in prison. Their editor, Giorgio Mule, must serve eight months. The trio must also pay 20,000 euros compensation to the defendant, Palermo prosecutor Francesco Messineo.

The journalists are convicted of defaming Messineo in a 2009 article that outlined the lawyer’s familial connections to the mafia. The article claims that Messineo’s brother is a member of the mob, a charge that apparently had been made previously in La Repubblica and La Stampa. It is unclear why Messineo complained only about the Panorama report.

Although defamation has been criminalized in Italy since World War II, it has not been used as a means of prosecution until recently; the offense appears to be making a comeback, according to the European group the Organization for Security and Cooperation.

That comeback began in September 2012, when Italy’s highest court upheld a June 2011 criminal conviction of Allessandro Sallusti, then-editor of the right-wing newspaper Libero, for publishing an article by an anonymous writer that expressed outrage that a judge allowed a 13-year-old to have an abortion. The verdict was later overturned by then-President Giorgio Napolitano following a loud outcry throughout Europe.

Reaction to the latest convictions was fast and furious as well. Marina Berlusconi, daughter of the ex-premier of Italy and chairwoman of the Mondadori publishing group, which owns Panorama, slammed the verdict.

“The freedom to print cannot be locked in a prison,” she wrote on Panorama’s website. Berlusconi added that Mondadori will appeal the decision, even if she must take the case to the European court.

Panorama has once again done their job, and they did it well, ” she continued. “Even in the face of a judgment that leaves you speechless. They will continue [to write] as usual, to exercise their right of careful, sharp, and deeply adversarial press.”

Italy’s National Federation of Journalists called the verdict “incredible,” adding it was “far from the principles of the law of modern democracies.”

Free speech advocates across the continent also criticized the prison sentence, some adding that libel should not be a criminal offense. Beppe Giulietti, head of association Article 21, named after the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights guaranteeing free speech, offered his group’s help to bring the case before the European Court.

“In a modern democracy no one should be imprisoned for what they write,” Dunja Mijatović, OSCE’s representative on media freedoms, said in a press release. “Civil courts are fully competent to redress grievances of people who think their reputations have been damaged.”

The OSCE intervened on behalf of Sallusti, lobbying Napolitano to pardon the editor. The group indicated Monday it would do the same in this latest case.

Italian politicians across the political spectrum condemned the ruling as well. Sending journalists to jail for defamation “is a mistake that democracy can no longer allow,” said Vannino Chiti, a Democratic Party senator, according to Panorama.

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Alison Langley has more than 25 years experience in journalism as a reporter and editor. Her stories have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The FT and The Independent. She currently lectures in journalism at Fachhochschule Wien and Webster University Vienna.