13 July 2004


Legislators move to abolish prison sentences for libel

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(RSF/IFEX) - RSF has welcomed a proposed amendment to Italy's defamation law that would abolish prison sentences for libel, and has urged Parliament to pass the new text as soon as possible so that judges will be able to review the cases of journalists who have already been given prison terms. The proposed reform was approved by the lower house's judicial commission in a 1 July 2004 vote.

"The Italian courts have too often sentenced journalists to prison for libel. This is unacceptable in a democracy and contrary to the recommendations of the United Nations, the European Court of Human Rights and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe," RSF said in a letter to Chamber of Deputies President Pier Ferdinando Casini and Senate President Marcello Pera.

The organisation said the proposed reform had many flaws and expressed particular concern over its granting judges the power to ban journalists from practicing their profession. RSF stressed, however, that the abolition of prison sentences for libel would be "a real victory for press freedom in Italy."

While the existing law does not limit the size of fines for libel, the proposed amendment would set a ceiling of 5,000 euros (approx. US$6,200). It also stipulates that when journalists are convicted for the first time, judges may ask the Order of Journalists to apply sanctions ranging from a warning to suspension or expulsion from the association.

In cases of subsequent offences, judges may themselves decide to ban journalists from working for periods of six months to one year without referring to the Order of Journalists.

Parliament must decide whether the amendment will apply only to the traditional media or websites as well.

Stefano Surace, the former editor of the weekly "Le Ore", was sentenced in 2001 to more than two years in prison for libel. Raffaele Jannuzzi, a senator and former journalist with "Il Giornale di Napoli", was sentenced to two and a half years for libel in 2002. Massimiliano Melilli, a former journalist with the local weekly "Il Meridiano", was given an 18-month prison sentence for libel earlier this year. None of the three are currently in prison as legal procedures are still pending (see IFEX alerts of 26 February 2004, 25 November and 13 August 2002).


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