Italy faces reform calls as journalists jailed for libel

The Italian Parliament is facing calls to decriminalise the country's libel laws after a journalist and a former newspaper director were given jail sentences.

Freedom of expression campaign group Article 19 issued its call over the case of journalist Orfeo Donatini and Tiziano Marson, former director of the newspaper Alto Adige, which is based in Bolzano, in Italy's South Tyrol.

The criminal case against the pair was started by Sven Knoll, a member of Bolzano's Provincial Council, who claimed that they libelled him in an article by Donatini which appeared in Alto Adige in 2008 and reported that he had taken part in a neo-Nazi summit in Val Passiria.

The information, which first appeared in the national weekly L'Espresso, had been taken from a police report, Article 19 said.

Knoll did not contact Alto Adige in reaction to the article but lodged a criminal defamation complaint with the Bolzano Tribunal.

At the prosecutor's request, the journalists were acquitted – but the case was reviewed by the Court of Cassation, which referred it back to the Bolzano Tribunal.

On June 20 this year the Tribunal convicted Donatini and Marson of "defamation through the press", sentenced to four months in prison and told to pay compensation of 15,000 Euros – £11,800.

Article 19 said it was calling on Italy's Parliament to repeal the Penal Code's provisions on defamation and bring its legislation in compliance with the international standards on freedom of expression.

It went on: "We believe that the presence of criminal defamation provisions in the Penal Code and its continued application as in this case is incompatible with basic democratic ideals, as well as international guarantees of freedom of expression.

"Article 19 is alarmed that Italy is one of the two last remaining countries in Europe where journalists still receive prison sentences for defamation.

"It is disturbing that one of the founding member states of the Council of Europe and the European Union uses sanctions regarded in the rest of Europe as archaic, anti-democratic and a disproportionate restriction on freedom of expression.

"The second country in Europe is Belarus, which is currently suspended from the Council of Europe because of its lack of respect for fundamental human rights.

"The recent case as well as the prison sentences given by the Court of Chieti to the journalists, Valter Nerone, Lattanzio and Vicinanza in 2011, highlight the need for an immediate response at a legislative level."

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