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Friday, 28 September 2012

Italian president weighs in on editor's conviction in criminal libel case

IPI urges lawmakers to make needed reforms to defamation law 

By: Steven M. Ellis, IPI Senior Press Freedom Adviser

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano speaks to reporters at the Quirinale palace in Rome on Nov. 13, 2011. Photo: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

VIENNA, Sep 28, 2012 – The International Press Institute (IPI) today criticised an Italian court’s decision upholding an editor’s 14-month prison sentence for criminal libel, but the press freedom group expressed hope that the decision could lead to long-overdue reforms of Italian defamation law.

A statement posted on Italian President Giorgio Napolitano’s website yesterday said that he and Justice Minister Paola Severino* agreed on the need to make changes to the country’s libel law that would take into account decisions by the European Court of Human Rights, changes that could potentially impact Il Giornale Editor Alessandro Sallusti’s case.

Italy’s highest tribunal on Wednesday affirmed Sallusti’s 2011 criminal libel conviction over the 2007 publication by right-wing daily Libero, which Sallusti edited at the time, of a pseudonymously-penned comment expressing outrage at a Turin judge’s ruling allowing a 13-year-old girl to have an abortion. The comment, signed “Dreyfus”, said that the judge, the girl’s parents and the gynaecologist who conducted the procedure deserved the death penalty.

Sallusti yesterday published a front-page article in Il Giornale in which he refused to plead for clemency and announced that he would resign. However, the paper’s owner, Paolo Berlusconi, brother of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, refused to accept the resignation, saying he had complete confidence in Sallusti.

That statement came the same day as Renato Farina, a deputy in Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL) party and a former Libero deputy editor, took to the floor of the Chamber of Deputies to admit that he authored the comment. Farina asked for clemency and a retrial for Sallusti, adding that he assumed “full moral and legal responsibility” for the comment.

Silvio Berlusconi on Wednesday said he would “ask the government to take action urgently to make sure that cases such as this one will never happen again, to make sure nobody is sent to prison for having expressed an opinion”.

Execution of Sallusti’s sentence has reportedly been stayed for two months so that Napolitano can review it. However, Italian news agency ANSA reported that Sallusti was indicted yesterday in a second libel case that accuses him of defaming a former military prosecutor in Padua, Maurizio Block, who is now part of the military’s superior council of judges. Journalist Barbara Romano and General Antonio Pappalardo were also indicted in the case, which is said to stem from remarks Pappalardo made about Block in a 2007 interview published in Libero.

IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi said: “We were extremely disappointed by the news that Mr. Sallusti’s criminal libel conviction and prison sentence were upheld and even more so when we learned that he now faces more charges. Criminal libel statutes are unnecessary and serve only to chill investigation, sustain corruption, protect public officials from necessary scrutiny and deny the basic human right of freedom of expression. We urge Italian lawmakers to decriminalise libel and to heed calls to bring civil defamation law in line with international standards.”

While libel prosecutions are rare in many western European countries that still criminalise defamation, Italy has seen a number of such cases in recent years. A court in June sentenced the editor and the former director of the newspaper L’Alto Adige, Orfeo Donatini and Tiziano Marson, to four months in prison and payment of a 15,000 euro fine for a news story concerning 2008 investigations against a provincial councillor who sued without first asking for a correction. In May 2011, three Italian journalists were handed prison sentences in connection with a series of articles published in 2007 about an alleged investigation into the mayor of Sulmona by the Financial Crime Investigation Unit.

*A version of this statement originally posted on Sept. 28, 2012, incorrectly identified Paola Severino as Italy's foreign minister. IPI regrets the error.