A former journalist for the local weekly II Meridiano, Massimiliano Melilli, was sentenced on appeal to 18 months in prison and ordered to pay a 100 000 euro fine for defamation by a court in Trieste, north-east Italy.
Reporters Without Borders strongly condemned the 24 February sentence, in a letter to Justice Minister Roberto Castelli, pointing out that under recommendations by the UN Human Rights Commission and the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, prison sentences should not be imposed for press offences.
"Although the party who believes itself defamed is obviously entitled to reparation, it is however unthinkable that a journalist should be imprisoned, in the one of the founding countries of the European Union, for having written an article," said the international press freedom organisation. "Locking up this journalist would be a real disgrace for Italy and for Europe," it added, calling for urgent reform of Italian legislation on defamation.
The offending articles, published on 9 and 16 November 1996, reported on rumours of "erotic parties" supposedly attended by Trieste high society. The journalist especially focused on Rosanna Illy, wife of the then mayor, now president of the Frioul-Vénétie region, Riccardo Illy, but without actually naming her. Rosanna Illy denied the allegations and had sued for libel, saying that the journalist had distorted her remarks, in an interview carried by Il Meridiano.
At the lower court on 1st June 2000, Massimiliano Melilli and Francesco Paticchio, the newspaper's editor in chief, were sentenced to 18 months in prison, although the prosecution had called for a six-month sentence. On appeal, Paticchio was discharged because of his poor state of health. Melilli appealed to the Court of Cassation.
Reporters Without Borders recalled that Italian courts handed down prison sentences for defamation in 2001, against Stefano Surace, former managing editor of the weekly Le Ore, and in 2002, against Raffaele Jannuzzi, former journalist on the daily Il Giornale di Napoli.