Who is afraid of journalists in Italy? While good practices are in place to improve journalists’ safety, press freedom and journalists’ protection continues to be at risk in Italy. Journalists face numerous challenges, including violence and intimidation from organised crime, as well as being subjected to legal harassment. Today, ARTICLE 19 Europe and partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) publish a report on threats to media freedom in Italy, which concludes our fact-finding mission.
From 4 to 6 April 2022, the MFRR delegation was in Italy for a mission primarily focusing on two topics: defamation reform and plans for future legislative developments to fight against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), as well as the safety of journalists and State protection measures. The mission was organised in collaboration with local organisations, including the Italian National Federation of Journalists (FNSI), the journalists’ association Articolo 21, the Order of Journalists, and Journalists and the Journalists’ Union of Campania.
The mission’s findings were launched at an online event organised by the MFRR featuring a representative of the European Commission, as well as the Italian partners. You can watch the recording of the discussion here.
Promising signs and room for improvement
Concerning safety of journalists, the delegation met the Italian Coordination Centre on acts of intimidation against journalists. The centre is a promising example of collaboration between the authorities and media organisations with an aim to better protect journalists, in particular prevent and respond to acts of violence and intimidation against them. We are, however, concerned by the possible excessive political influence over the work of the centre. We identified several avenues to expand the scope of collected data and to improve their quality.
MFRR representatives held several meetings with journalists and journalistic associations to identify and explore the main obstacles and menaces that hinder their work and curtail media freedom. Three journalists who were threatened by organised crime, or the camorra, for exposing crimes and corruption, and who live under police protection, engaged in online conversation with the Vice-President of the European Commission Věra Jourová. They spoke about corruption, abusive lawsuits and the responsibility of politicians to strengthen and guarantee the safety of journalists. Other journalists’ groups we met highlighted the increasingly precarious nature of the contracts for Italian journalists, and in particular how it affects those working for independent outlets and freelancers.
During the meeting with the Constitutional Court’s judge-rapporteur, Francesco Viganò, ARTICLE 19 Europe discussed the recent Constitutional Court’s decisions over prison sentence for journalists in cases of defamation through the press and the Court’s call to Parliament to implement a comprehensive reform of defamation. Our mission, however, diminished hopes with regard to a comprehensive reform of the defamation legal framework in the current legislative term, given the lack of clearly- demonstrated intention from the Parliament to proceed in this direction.
The complexity of SLAPPs and their dire impact on the Italian media landscape and journalists were the topics of a meeting hosted by the FNSI, where several journalists targeted with abusive lawsuits in Italy shared their testimonies. Speakers highlighted the excessive length of proceedings, the use of both criminal and civil lawsuits to silence them, and the financial risk emanating from SLAPP cases both at personal level and for their outlets. There are examples that the mere possibility of costly litigation pushed editors to abandon controversial investigations. In many cases, even if journalists are acquitted and found innocent, they are still obliged to pay for their legal defence.
The MFRR recommends a combination of legislative and non-legislative measures to address SLAPPs against journalists. Among other things, these include introducing an early dismissal procedure, mechanisms for financial and legal support, as well as punitive sanctions for those who initiate these abusive lawsuits. In this context, we call on the Italian authorities to work with the European Commission, the other Member States, and the European Parliament to advance and subsequently implement the EC Anti-SLAPP Initiative.
The MFRR delegation identified an urgent need for robust action by the Italian authorities, both as concerns legal threats specifically and with regard to the safety of journalists more broadly. It is vital to overcome political differences and act collectively in order to put forward more concrete actions to safeguard media freedom in Italy.