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Italy8 July 2004

Legislators move to abolish prison sentences for libel

Reporters Without Borders today welcomed a proposed amendment to Italy’s defamation law abolishing prison sentences for libel and urged parliament to pass it as soon as possible so that judges can review the cases of journalists who have already been given prison terms. The proposed reform was approved by the lower house’s judicial commission in a vote on 1 July.

"The Italian courts have too often sentenced journalists to prison for libel, and this is unacceptable in a democracy and contrary to the recommendations of the United Nations, the European court of human rights and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe," Reporters Without Borders said in a letter to chamber of deputies president Pier Ferdinando Casini and senate president Marcello Pera.

The organisation said the proposed reform had many flaws. Giving judges the power to ban journalists from practising their profession was particularly worrying. "Nonetheless, the abolition of prison sentences for libel would be a real victory for press freedom in Italy," it stressed.

While the existing law does not limit the size of fines for libel, the proposed amendment would set a ceiling of 5,000 euros. It also stipulates that when journalists are convicted for the first time, judges may ask the Journalists’ Association to apply sanctions ranging from a warning to suspension or expulsion from the association.

In cases of subsequent offences, judges may themselves decide to ban journalists from working for six months to one year without referring to the Journalists’ Association.

Parliament must decide whether the amendment will apply just to the traditional media or websites as well.

Stefano Surace, the former editor of the weekly Le Ore, was sentenced in 2001 to more than two years in prison for libel. Raffaele Jannuzzi, a senator and former journalist with Il Giornale di Napoli, was sentenced to two and a half years for libel in 2002. And Massimiliano Melilli, a former journalist with the local weekly Il Meridiano, was given an 18-month prison sentence for libel earlier this year. But none of them is currently in prison as legal procedures are still pending.

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