Freedom of the press. Italy and the Unesco research on the misuse of judicial system

The dossier of the UN agency shows that the worrying trends already observed in Italy are emerging at an international level

OSSIGENO December 9th 2022 – by Alberto Spampinato – The misuse of the judicial system (i.e., the law, codes and the civil and criminal courts) to limit freedom of expression and of the press is not only a phenomenon in Italy. It is a problem present worldwide and in recent years it has gained ground, thanks to silence Ossigeno per l’Informazione and general indifference. New UNESCO research published in Italian by the Observatory states this. (read here the document in English).

What does it depict? A sad phenomenon that is well known in Italy. In Italy, inter alia, , this “incorrect use” (misuse) permits every year a situation  where, although the accusations are unfounded, specious, and rash, at least five thousand lawsuits and civil summons for damages from libel are transformed into instruments of intimidation, giving rise to lengthy and costly trials that create difficulties for newspapers and journalists who have correctly exercised their activity.

These trials add to the thousands of threats and intimidation directed in other, usually violent forms, at journalists, bloggers, other media workers and human rights defenders.

The Ossigeno per l’Informazione observatory has publicly documented over six thousand intimidations of this type in the last ten years. So Ossigeno knows very well what the situation is in Italy. But the state of these phenomena in the rest of the world was less well known.

This UNESCO research now tells us that matters are going very badly. It highlights the exploitation of justice by those who fear the truth of the facts as the most used tool everywhere in recent years to curb freedom of expression, that fundamental right which allows journalists to publish news unappreciated by those in power and enables anyone to express opinions and criticisms without retaliation.

These impressive data alone should prompt those who have not yet done so (in the world of politics, information sector trade unions, parliament and political parties) to open their eyes and commit themselves to look for less rhetorical ways than those used so far to tackle this problem which has the dimensions of a pestilence and which produces a very serious consequence: an improper, undeclared but very effective censorship.

Censorship  is the most suitable word to define a phenomenon that allows journalists and dissidents to get into trouble, even in democratic countries, even those who are innocent and are forced to prove it in a court to defend themselves against accusations of alleged defamation, violation of privacy or revelation of this or that secret. What other word could be used for a system in which justice works like this, in which a judge can inflict penalties on a journalist that prevent the journalist from continuing his or her activity?

Other aspects of this UNESCO research e.g., on legal systems help to better understand the Italian situation. Globally, in 44 countries new laws have proliferated in the last five years (research counts 57) which have not taken into account, neither how nor the extent that they should have, the obligation to protect the right to information. New laws, for example which configure defamation as a crime and punish it even with prison, or neglect the prerogatives of journalists, or limit the autonomy, codified as a right by the most important international treaties,  of journalists and human rights defenders.

In central and eastern Europe, the use of the criminal law to punish defamation has increased. It is a crime in 15 of the 25 states in the region and in most of them it carries prison sentences. Ten countries have abolished all general provisions against defamation and libel and four others have implemented partial decriminalisation.

Punitive laws towards those who express legitimate criticism of those in power and the powerful have remained in force and – in ever greater numbers and in every country, says UNESCO – the summons for damages and rash lawsuits used as “SLAPPS to discourage those who publish unappreciated news and unwelcome opinions have increased.

The balance of the last ten years, the UNESCO research bitterly concludes, is unsatisfactory, but the lost ground can still be regained. How? Newspapers, journalists, publishers, rights defenders must play their part better. In every country, governments, political forces, legislators must accept and implement the recommendations addressed to them by international organizations and referred to in this research, above all by decriminalizing libel. This fundamental reform in Italy is taboo and no one has so far wanted to propose it. But it will have to be discussed.

What can one say when an authoritative source such as UNESCO explains that the Italian problems documented for some time by Ossigeno, which have bestowed on Italy the not very honorable title of the European country with the most journalists threatened and under police guard, are the same as many other countries that so far have not wanted to admit it? It is an encouragement to continue to observe and document what is happening in Italy and to help, assist and rescue those who suffer the most brutal consequences of unjust and deficient legislation, especially the weakest victims. ASP

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