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With Panorama jail sentences, Italy's libel law under fire

"Incredible," "staggering," "enormous," "out of time"--the expressions of outrage have been flying in Italy since a Milan magistrate sentenced to prison three journalists for the weekly magazine Panorama. On May 24, Andrea Marcenaro and Riccardo Arena were each condemned to a one-year jail term for a 2010 article discussing Palermo magistrate Francesco Messineo's alleged family connections to the mafia. The editor-in-chief of the center-right news magazine, Giorgio Mule, was sentenced to eight months in jail for "having failed to check the article." The three journalists must also pay 20,000 euros (US$26,000) in compensation to the defendant.

"In a modern democracy no one should be imprisoned for what they write," said Dunja Mijatović, representative on freedom of the media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). "Civil courts are fully competent to redress grievances of people who think their reputations have been damaged. The European Court of Human Rights has substantial case law confirming that imprisonment for libel is disproportionate and damaging to a democratic society," Mijatović added in a message delivered to the new minister of foreign affairs, Emma Bonino, a former EU Commissioner and a strong defender of free speech.

"It is an unjust sentence in the name of an unjust law," said the Italian journalists' union FNSI (Federazione Nazionale della Stampa Italiana). Although previous prison sentences generally have been commuted, Italian journalists fear that such harsh sentences, hanging as a threat over the press, lead to self-censorship and prevent the media from acting as a watchdog in the public interest. The mere existence of such a law intimidates in particular journalists investigating public officials, corruption, and criminal organizations.

Marina Berlusconi, the chairwoman of the Mondadori publishing group that owns Panorama (and the daughter of media tycoon and ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi), refused to be intimidated. "Panorama journalists will continue to exercise their right of careful, sharp, and deeply adversarial press," she said. She said her company will appeal the sentence all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, the top European judicial institution.

Pursuing the judicial path, however, cannot exempt Italian lawmakers from their responsibility. "The enormity of the sentence makes it clear that new legislation is needed in tune with a respectable and advanced democratic society," the FNSI stated.

Parliamentarians across the party aisles criticized the ruling, but the Italian legislature is largely to blame for not scrapping the law that criminalizes libel. Despite the outcry that followed the 2011 sentencing of Alessandro Sallusti, editor of the daily Il Giornale, to 14 months in prison, Italian lawmakers obdurately have failed to take action.

Sending journalists to jail "is a mistake that democracy can no longer allow," said Vannino Chiti, a senator of the center-left Democratic Party. By correcting that mistake, Italy would comply with--among other European and international norms--a 2012 declaration of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe denouncing the abuse of defamation laws.

[Reporting from Brussels]

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