In prison for libel. The journalists at risk are in the thousands

They are those with a suspended sentence on condition that they do not suffer another one. The “chilling effect” that weighs above all on editors-in-chief

The sentence for which the Sicilian journalist Graziella Lombardo, in December 2017, was condemned to social services, confirms that in Italy journalists guilty of libel continue to be sentenced to prison, to penalties that all experts consider excessive, disproportionate.

The heavy penalty to this chief editor also denies the cliché that it would be useless to change the law that produces these penalties because, on balance, in Italy not even a journalist is in prison for defamation. It is true that usually the condemned person benefits from the conditional suspension and does not go to jail. But the case of Graziella Lombardo is also true. And it tells us of how founded the fear of ending up in jail really is (or serving prison with alternative measures) for having done your job.

It has happened for 70 years, it continues to happen despite all the solemn commitments made by the government, parliament and political leaders of the past twenty years, to abolish at least the sharpest edge of a punitive legislation that has a chilling effect on the freedom of information, an intimidating effect on all journalists, bloggers, opinion leaders.

There is not much of a debate about it, but the problem closely affects thousands of Italian journalists: those who have already been condemned, even to a few months in prison, and fear of actually ending up in jail because of recidivism. Those sentenced in the last five years number 775.

The most exposed are the reporters of crime and judicial news, because of the subjects they deal with, and the chief editors, since they respond, together with the author, of anything published.

We are therefore faced with a concrete and wide-ranging intimidating effect, which pushes reporters and newspapers to observe excessive prudence, incompatible with freedom of information and with the duty to publish even those news of public interest that at the moment may be ambiguous and contradictory, but which nonetheless help citizens to orient themselves. If journalists, while showing prudence, while observing their good faith, do not run risks of making mistakes, then their profession would be useless: it would be as useless as newspapers without news, without the most important news. Who benefits to push prudence to ever higher levels, to the threshold of self-censorship and sometimes beyond?

Ossigeno does not dispute the fact that, at the end of a trial, who is found guilty should serve a sentence, but believes that for this crime the prison sentence is disproportionate and produces an intimidating effect (indeed a chilling effect). The only penalty must be a fine. Will the next Parliament be able to make this fundamental reform at no cost? Will it be able to remove libel from the list of crimes and have it treated as a civil offense instead? Libel must be decriminalized, as has already happened for the crime of insult. We remind the candidates in contention for a seat in the coming elections.

ASP ONY (gt)

Read also In prison for libel. In Sicily a journalist to social services

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