Italy must drop disproportionate ban on working as journalist from proposed defamation law reform

The planned reform of the defamation legislation, currently examined by the Justice Committee of the Italian Senate, includes - in addition to increased fines - an outrageous ban of journalistic practice. Moreover, a recent amendment questions the removal of prison sentences, initially included in the reform. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Italian ruling majority to comply with the Council of Europe’s recommendation on combating gag lawsuits and pass a bill without custodial or disproportionate sanctions.

Proposed in January 2023 by Senator Alberto Balboni, a member of Fratelli d’Italia, the largest party in the ruling coalition, the bill would finally bring Italian law into compliance with a constitutional court ruling calling for an end to sentences of up to six years in prison for defamation. But press freedom is far from being on the winning side. First, the prison sentences - of up to four years - risk being preserved in the legislation due to the amendment revealed by the media on 11 April 2024 and tabled by Senator Gianni Berrino of Fratelli d’Italia, although the ruling majority remains opposed to it in principle.

Next, Balboni’s reform - supported by the government parties - would introduce another strongly disproportionate sanction : the ban on working as a journalist. The measure, which could possibly last as long as six months, would be a direct violation of international law and Italy’s international obligations. As journalism is just the professional exercise of a fundamental freedom, the freedom of expression, it cannot be the subject of a priori prohibitions. Such a sentence would violate the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights and the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“The right to defend oneself against defamation is a legitimate one, but it must not muzzle press freedom. The preservation of anti-constitutional prison sentences for this offense is absolutely unacceptable. As for the ban on working as a journalist included in the reform of the defamation law, it is not only disproportionate but also contrary to the recommendations for combatting SLAPPs made by the Council of Europe and European Union. We urge the ruling coalition to replace these provisions threatening journalists with self-censorship with measures protecting the right to information inspired by European standards.

Pavol Szalai
Head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk

The proposed amendment also significantly increases the size of fines for defamation – which can be combined with possible damages – from around 1,000 euros to between 5,000 to 10,000 euros. The fine can be increased to 50,000 euros if the perpetrator is deemed to have been aware of the falsity of the information published.

Complying with European law

On 5 April, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted a recommendation on combatting SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation) that calls on member states, including Italy, to devise “comprehensive and effective strategies to counter SLAPPs” and provides ten non-exhaustive indicators for identifying them, which include the “disproportionate, excessive or unreasonable” nature of the remedies requested.

Inter alia, the recommendation also calls on member states to establish structural and procedural provisions that include the ability to dismiss SLAPPs quickly and support for the victims of SLAPPs . This recommendation is in line with the one proposed by the European Commission in 2021, of which some provisions are now legally binding under the anti-SLAPP directive adopted by the EU last December.

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