Impunity in Italy. Data and proposals from Ossigeno

The speech delivered by Alberto Spampinato at the conference “Journalists threatened, the guilty unpunished” promoted by Ossigeno per l’Informazione and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) with the patronage of UNESCO on Monday 22nd October 2018 in the Sala Koch of the Italian Senate.

For the third consecutive year we solemnly celebrate today in a prestigious institutional building, the Italian Senate, the United Nations International Day to end the impunity for crimes against journalists.
This occasion allows us to interact with important speakers regarding one of the most neglected problems affecting the freedom of information perceived as a fundamental right and in particular journalism information, which is an essential public service for democratic life.

It is the most important annual occasion we have to talk about the fact that individuals working in this sector – journalists, bloggers, publishers and citizen journalists – suffer thousands of unjustifiable attacks every year, in violation of laws and treaties that enshrine the right to inform and to be informed, and to underline that in the face of what happens the authors of these attacks are usually not identified, prosecuted, punished as they deserve, as would be essential to defend such an important right.

Impunity for these crimes and abuses has been almost unchallenged for many years, in Italy and all over the world, and it is a major unresolved problem. For no other public service does something similar happen.

Statistics of attacks against journalists and bloggers are striking. UNESCO’s statistics tell us that:
• from 2006 until today 1010 journalists were killed in the world (there were 80 in the last year, 103 in 2016).
• In 9 cases out of 10 the perpetrators remained unpunished.
93% of those killed are local reporters.
7% are foreign correspondents (among these there are war correspondents)

UNESCO provides these data and has long stressed that the figures for those killed show only the tip of the iceberg because journalists who suffer serious threats and retaliation (attacks that are defined as non-fatal) due to their work without the perpetrators being punished are even more, many more.

How many, then, are threatened?
As regards Italy, Ossigeno has elaborated this data for the second consecutive year. It has calculated the number of threatened journalists and the percentage of impunity for the perpetrators of these threats. These are detailed and reliable data, taken from the monitoring that Oxygen has been conducting for over ten years with a methodology that involves the rigorous verification of each episode.

The main figures are as follows. In Italy:
• in the period 2006-2018, the same period in which the 1010 journalists counted by UNESCO were killed in the rest of the world, 3721 (were 3406 one year ago) journalists and bloggers in Italy were attacked
• in the period 2011-2018, there were 3122 attacks on journalists identified by Ossigeno. The Observatory has calculated on this sample the percentage of impunity which amounts to 98.3%
• in the last year (October 2017-October 2018) Ossigeno has identified in Italy 316 new attacks and 31 cases of punishment of the aggressors for these attacks and other attacks over the years. This enables us to say with a good approximation that the trend rate of impunity is 90.1%. We will refine this data and verify it in the coming months if the emerging trend is confirmed.

This data will be illustrated and analyzed in greater detail in other contributions at this conference.

But accepting the provisional data that I have quoted, there is a general significance that it is important to highlight at the outset. And it is this: in the last 12 months in Italy, impunity has remained very high, but it seems to have recorded a marked decrease (-8.6%) compared to the almost constant trend of the previous seven years (98.7 %).

We observed the beginning of a change in November 2017, after the by now famous violent aggression on the journalist Daniele Piervincenzi and the cameraman Edoardo Anselmi which occurred on November 7th in Ostia. That aggression marked a turning point in the commitment of the police and judiciary authorities to prosecute the perpetrators of violent attacks against journalists, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

That blatant attack in Ostia and, almost simultaneously, another equally blatant episode, the death threats, in Sicily, to the journalist Paolo Borrometi, who has been under police protection since 2014, have created unprecedented attention, both at the level of public perception and at a media and institutional level, for the hardly new phenomenon of the violent pressure upon reporters engaged in collecting and disseminating unpublished information on the activity of criminal groups connected to Mafia individuals and clans.

These two episodes had a snowball effect, adding to the information disseminated in the previous months by Ossigeno and by the journalists’ organizations on the growth of serious intimidation of the same kind. In fact, since the beginning of the year there have been 281 of this type documented and made public by Ossigeno, of which 120 in Rome and Lazio, the region in which Ostia is located. Certainly the Ostia episode has had particular resonance because the aggression was brutal and the video was broadcast and featured in the course of high-profile television programs, because it occurred on the outskirts of Rome while a very heated election campaign was underway for the renewal of the municipal council that a year before had been dissolved by the government for Mafia infiltration and because the attacker was related to known Mafia exponents and had been interviewed about what had been his rôle in obtaining electoral support.

Journalists, anti-Mafia associations and political groups reacted to that aggression in Ostia with public demonstrations of protest and with widely-attended marches. More rigorous measures have been called for against the attacker who had been on bail. This request has prompted a varied discussion reported by the media. On the 16th November the attacker was arrested on the orders of the Rome prosecutors. In this context the investigators took the initiative to punish the attackers of Paolo Borrometi. On November 15th, 2017, he had published in the online newsletter La Spia an investigative article in which he identified a man already convicted of murder, as one of the “prominent members” of the Bottaro-Attanasio Mafia clan which in Syracuse and its province competed with other criminal groups for areas of influence. The brother of the man had reacted on 19th November, with an audio message (listen here) sent to Borrometi on his private Facebook account, warning him not to publish other news on the criminal activities in which he and his family were involved, threatening to massacre him if he did not obey. This episode was immediately publicly denounced by the journalist and this also had wide resonance like the aggression in Ostia. On the 25th November the perpetrator of the threat was arrested by order of the District Anti-Mafia Directorate.

The prompt arrest of a person who has threatened a journalist is not common in Italy. But in November 2017 it occurred twice within two weeks. In both cases, the judiciary ordered the arrest defining the crime of attempted private violence exacerbated by the Mafia method against the journalist. This was also a big novelty. The prosecutor requested the arrest and the investigating judge accepted the request.

Oxygen commented positively on this breakthrough emphasizing that these measures show that it is possible to react quickly and energetically, with existing legislation, against those who commit absolutely grave offences such as these. Ossigeno also noted as a positive fact that it began to be taken into account the fact that both these episodes replicate the widespread intimidation method typical of the Mafia. In fact, these criminal gestures intend to intimidate not only the single individual targeted but all journalists. Moreover they also harm all citizens, depriving them of the right to collect and receive information that they have the right to know, information they need to move about in society. The determination of the investigators in these two episodes shows that a greater awareness of the severity of the threats, of the aggressions, of the reprisals against journalists and bloggers and of the social damage they produce is growing even if slowly. In the last 12 months, on two occasions the attackers of journalists have been charged with the aggravating Mafia mode confirming the new trend. But for other similar incidents this did not happen. This indicates that there is not yet a unified approach of the judiciary to handling these particularly serious cases.

In recent months, another episode has, nevertheless, shown that the judiciary gives more importance to the fact that those who prevent journalists from freely performing their activity are disrupting a public service. The magistrate involved has indeed leveled this charge against the man who attacked the journalist Nello Trocchia and his technician. The diminution of impunity under existing legislation indicates that there are already effective and largely unused rules to intervene in an energetic and effective way. against the perpetrators of serious attacks on journalists. But it is also necessary to introduce new legislation to protect journalists and to defend press freedom, because it is clear that in this field there are some indispensable pieces missing in order to make the legislative protection mechanism work better. In particular, in the view of Ossigeno, we need:

a specific offense for those who deliberately act in such a way as to prevent the exercise of the right of information and expression as set out by Article 21 of the Constitution and Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights

a specific aggravation for crimes committed for this purpose

in matters of defamation in the printed media, less unequivocally punitive rules against journalists, in particular the abolition of a prison sentence (which every year adds up to more than a century in prison), a deterrent against a specious and intimidating resort to lawsuits and claims for damages (over five thousand every year), the introduction of a form of correction as a condition for the non-prosecution for defamation and the cancellation of anachronistic offences of vilification

the separation of the current situation of defamation in print into 1) a crime aimed at punishing exclusively malicious behavior adopted to damage the reputation of someone; and 2) an unlawful act for involuntary defamation due to errors or negligence, which can be rectified with corrections and public apologies and redress for any documentable damage suffered. It will be recalled that in 2015 this split was proposed to Parliament by the Anti-Mafia Commission.

The need for other legislative innovations has already emerged clearly in the political and parliamentary debate:

In particular the redefinition of the publisher’s primary legal responsibility vis-à-vis third parties for the legal consequences of what he publishes, and the affirmation of his duty to provide legal assistance to the defendants sued or being tried, without prejudice to the possibility that they may take action against the authors in case of disloyalty or other malicious behavior. The current situation is paradoxical and has been fully brought to light in particular by what happened to the newspaper L’Unità, where the publisher has disappeared and the journalists sued for defamation are responding in court also for him

The recognition of an adequate legal status to those who practice the profession of journalist, respecting criteria of responsibility and competence, and ethical duties. This would avoid a large part of the current legal dispute.

There are numerous other things to do, but it would be too long to enumerate them in a short speech. We will postpone them to a specific conference that we hope to organize by bringing together all the stakeholders in the sector, creating a proposal that we have been making for some time.

We consider it necessary to overcome sterile opposition, partisan visions and the harmful immobility that derives from them.

Self-regulating systems

In the same spirit we invite all to reflect and devote attention to the opportunity to introduce in Italy extrajudicial systems to regulate the inevitable conflicts that arise between newspapers and readers, conflicts that currently result in the flood of judicial proceedings for defamation, mostly inapposite and inconclusive, which clog up the machinery of justice, burden journalists and publishers with a huge cost (over € 54 million each year of legal expenses) and represent a kind of absurd tax on innocence and on those who exercise the duty of news providers.

In this field, there is nothing to invent. In many countries these systems already exist. They are self-regulating bodies, self-managed and self-financed. They do not require institutional laws or public funding. They only require the goodwill of the parties involved. They are called Media Accountability Systems, they include a “Press Council” made up of representatives of journalists, editors and readers-consumers, an Ombudsman (a mediator chosen for prestige, competence and recognized morality), and a code of conduct shared between the parties on the modus operandi. These bodies are recommended by the European institutions in order to make the media more accountable to citizens and to increase their credibility vis-à-vis their readers, a good that appears to be seriously compromised, with not inconsiderable consequences for the crises of many newspapers and for the employment of journalists. In Italy, Media Accountability Systems could solve 80% of the current judicial litigation in a quick, effective and much less expensive way. Ossigeno encourages everyone to take this path and proposes itself as a neutral facilitator of meetings between the parties.

I spoke about the crisis of credibility in the media. This problem is directly reflected in the safety of journalists: it weakens it. During these years Ossigeno has seen how enormously difficult it is to promote general solidarity even towards journalists who have undoubtedly suffered serious and unjustifiable attacks. Many refuse to stand alongside a journalist who finds himself in these conditions, stating that they cannot defend those who are part of media that is partisan, biased, deployed in unequivocal defense of political or economic interests, in other words little credible.

To increase the credibility of the media is, therefore, necessary not only to win over audiences and readers, but also for those, like us, as our guests and our speakers, have as their objective to reduce impunity, to defend the freedom of press and expression, taking into account also the interests of readers and their right to interact, to request corrections, rectifications or simply to reply in the name of the right of access to information and pluralism, two rights to which journalists and publishers must respond by fulfilling their ethical duties without which journalism information does not exist, but only the unilateral and propagandistic representation of reality.


What can be done in the current political situation?

It is difficult to say. In this matter forecasts have always been difficult and the expectations have always been disappointed. We do not know what can come from a phase of discontinuity like the one we are experiencing in Italy, from a season in which the anxiety to change things leads to talk about human rights and coping with the problems of immigration with a unhibited language that we cannot share.

But we at Ossigeno are incurable optimists. So we will continue to play our part, we will remain impartial observers, Pinocchio’s annoying voice of conscience, we will continue to try to translate our utopias into a possible world, we will work with anyone who wishes to discuss it.

The monitoring of Ossigeno

We will continue our decade-long monitoring of violations of the right to inform and be informed. This monitoring, as you know, includes a complex journalistic and publishing activity and rigorous fact checking. This monitoring enables one to know in a timely manner, on a continuous basis, in detail, with names and surnames, the most serious attacks on journalists, analyzing their causes and proposing remedies. We hope to find the resources necessary to keep under observation a much larger part of that 6 percent of the scenario that we have been able to discern so far. We will continue in the belief that this type of monitoring, alongside the equally important action of the Italian National Press Federation (FNSI) and of the Order of Journalists to promote solidarity with reporters under attack, has helped to defend many journalists under attack and has helped Italy to make strides in the fight against impunity.

We invite everyone to help us to do more and better, to consider the methodical monitoring of Ossigeno a basic, primary tool for the protection of journalists, the most advanced pilot experience of the public agency that the Council of Europe has proposed that governments create in each country.

Italy monitoring of Ossigeno keeps the spotlights lit forever on attacks on journalists, keeps everyone alert, enables rapid intervention to help and assist those in need, allows institutions to know the facts in an objective manner with the details necessary to form an opinion and decide if and how to intervene.

A counter such as the European Platform

The current system reporting violations to the Italian authorities is however very uncertain, difficult and without a sure result. Ossigeno, therefore, has proposed creating in Italy a public platform on the model of that of the Council of Europe and hopes that this proposal can be accepted.


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