As Italy prepares to vote in a general election on 25 September, civil society organisations have appealed to the future parliament to protect the right to information and take measures to address Strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), acknowledging the risks they pose to human rights and democratic values.
The right to be informed about matters of public interest and for journalists to report freely about them cannot and must not be blocked by SLAPPs, lawsuits designed to silence journalists, activists, whistleblowers, and anyone who sheds light on matters of public interest. SLAPPs are a true violation of the right to be informed and freedom of expression. They also pose serious restrictions on democratic participation as they deprive the public debate of voices reporting on issues of public interest. The explicit goal of those who carry out legal actions against journalists and activists working on corruption, abuse of power, and environmental issues, among other issues, is to silence them, a threat to freedom of expression and the right to report.
In Italy, the use of SLAPPs is widespread. Defamation – both civil and criminal – is the most commonly-employed legal tool to instigate SLAPP cases. However, the right to privacy and the right to be forgotten are also misused to prevent the disclosure of inconvenient information. Often, legal threats even precede the publication of the investigation, triggering mechanisms of self-censorship.
The Italian Parliament has already been urged to abide by the recent Constitutional Court rulings on the issue of defamation. The Court, in fact, intervened with a decision in 2020 and a ruling in 2021 on the issue of the constitutionality of prison sentences for journalists in cases of press defamation, calling on the Parliament to remove the rules that provide for incarceration – except for cases of ‘exceptional gravity’ – and to promote a wide-ranging reform of the relevant legislation. Such reform, which has remained stagnant and obstructed in previous legislatures, is necessary in order to hopefully reach an ‘effective balance between freedom of expression and the protection of reputation’, as the Court emphasised in 2021.
At the European level, last April the European Commission presented its response to the problem by drafting a two-pronged document: a directive on transnational cases, which will now have to follow its approval process between the EU Council and the European Parliament, and a recommendation with immediate but non-binding effect, which gathers precise indications to be applied in national cases. This was possible also thanks to an intense mobilisation of the Coalition against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE), which unites more than 40 European civil society organisations committed to combating SLAPPs.
European Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova refers to the directive under discussion as ‘Daphne’s law’, to remember Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, killed in 2017. At the time, Caruana Galizia was being targeted with several legal proceedings, and her tragic story helped to raise attention to the issue. The presentation of the proposal at European level was celebrated as a moment of historic significance, an achievement unthinkable until a few years ago.
This legacy must not be lost.
The European initiative should propel the urgent adoption of measures to protect SLAPP victims in Italy as well. Now it is up to the next Italian Parliament and Government to do their part. In view of the vote on 25 September, the signatories of this appeal ask all the candidates in the forthcoming elections and all political forces for a public commitment to support during the next legislature, in the European and national fora, the adoption of measures, within and beyond the legislative realm, to counter SLAPPs.
Specifically, we call for:
- the introduction of the issue of SLAPPs as a priority on the Italian political agenda;
- the launch of a comprehensive legal reform on defamation, both criminal and civil, in line with recent Constitutional Court rulings and the standards of international law on freedom of expression;
- the introduction of a procedure for the timely dismissal of legal actions classifiable as SLAPPs;
- the establishment of punitive and deterrent sanctions for SLAPPs plaintiffs;
- the systematic and independent data collection and monitoring of intimidating legal acts by institutions in cooperation with civil society;
- the continuation of a parliamentary intergroup dealing with information, media, and journalism and the effective engagement of its members in combatting SLAPPs;
- the implementation without delay of the guidelines contained in the European Recommendation for national cases;
- the support, in the European fora, of the proposed anti-SLAPPs Directive presented by the European Commission on 27 April 2022.
Thanks to an active network throughout Europe, civil society has made a fundamental contribution in formulating responses to prevent reckless lawsuits from restricting free expression, participation, and democracy. We will continue to advocate for the proposed measures to be adopted.
The appeal is open to all organisations that share these demands. The list is constantly being updated. To subscribe, please send an email to: [email protected]
Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa
Transparency International Italia
ARTICLE 19 Europe
Environmental Paper Network
European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
International Press Institute (IPI)
Free Press Unlimited
Associazione Italiana Medici per l’Ambiente (ISDE)
Festival dei Diritti Umani
Lega Italiana Antivivisezione
Parliament Watch Italia
Federazione Nazionale Stampa Italiana
Ordine dei Giornalisti
Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation
Lega per l’Abolizione della Caccia
Umweltinstitut München e.V.
The Good Lobby Italia
Apincittà Associazione ambientalista
Coalizione Italiana Libertà e Diritti Civili
Cittadini per l’aria Onlus
Lega Italiana Protezione Uccelli (LIPU)
Associazione Italiana Turismo Responsabile (AITR)
Associazione delle Organizzazioni Italiane di Cooperazione e Solidarietà Internazionale (AOI)
Lipu – BirdLife Italia
Coming soon: ARTICLE 19’s interviews with Croatian, Polish, British, Serbian, and Spanish journalists, who describe the devastating impact of legal cases brought against them.
Also read –
Italy is ranked 13 out of 161 countries in the 2022 Global Expression Report – ARTICLE 19’s annual review of the state of freedom of expression and the right to information around the world.