Brussels, September 28, 2012--The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the criminal defamation conviction and 14-month prison sentence handed to Alessandro Sallusti, editor-in-chief of the Milan-based daily Il Giornale, and calls on Italian authorities to reform the country's defamation laws.
On Wednesday, the Fifth Chamber of the Cassation Court, Italy's highest, upheld an earlier guilty verdict delivered against Sallusti by a lower court in Milan in June, 2011.
The libel charge stems from an article, written under the pseudonym "Dreyfus" and published in February 2007 in the right-wing daily Libero, which Sallusti edited at the time. The author suggested that a juvenile court magistrate, who had allowed a 13-year-old girl the right to an abortion, should be given the death penalty. The magistrate filed a defamation complaint and a Milan court ruled that, as the editor, Sallusti bore responsibility for the publication of the anonymous article.
"Jailing Alessandro Sallusti would be a severe blow to press freedom in the European Union and a dangerous precedent for member-states and beyond," Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. "This shameful case should make clear to everyone in Italy that the country's defamation laws demand urgent reform."
Italy's Public Prosecutor's Office suspended Sallusti's sentence for a month, the international press reported. The news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported that Sallusti could appeal to do community service instead of serving time in prison.
Although the article was strongly criticized at the time of its publication as being excessive and containing factual errors, Sallusti's verdict has sent shock waves through Italy's journalistic circles. "The sentence defeats and kills freedom of expression," said Franco Siddi, executive secretary of the Italian journalists' union, FNSI. The left-wing La Repubblica, a paper that usually strongly disagrees with the right-wing Il Giornale, published an opinion piece stating that jailing journalists for libel "is disproportionate" and represents "a sinister intimidation" to the press.
Upon hearing the verdict, Sallusti reacted angrily, calling his sentence "worthy of repressive regimes such as Syria and North Korea." He also announced that he would resign from Il Giornale, which is owned by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's brother, "for the good of his colleagues and the readers of the paper."
The U.K.'s Telegraph reported that a member of Parliament from Berlusconi's party Wednesday confessed that he had written the article. Renato Farina, former deputy editor of Libero, said he took responsibility and called for a retrial, the Telegraph reported.