On September 26 Italy's supreme court sentenced Alessandro Sallusti, editor-in-chief of the daily Il Giornale, to 14 months in jail for defamation.
Sallusti was found guilty of aggravated defamation over an article that appeared in 2007 about a thirteen-year-old girl who had an abortion. The article was published in Libero, a daily newspaper of which Sallusti was editor-in-chief at the time, and was written by another journalist and signed under the pseudonym 'Dreyfus'. It was considered to be defamatory against the judge of Turin Giuseppe Cocilovo, who gave consent for the abortion. According to Italian law, Sallusti, as editor-in-chief of the paper, is liable for everything that is published, which is even more relevant in case of an anonymous article.
Italy's highest court rejected Sallusti’s appeal and condemned him to 14 months in jail with no parole, and ordered him to pay court expenses and reimburse the plaintiff for a total of €4,500 expenses incurred during the proceedings, A.G.I. reported.
Sallusti is not currently in prison as the implementation of the sentence has been suspended by the Public Prosecutor’s Office as he is not a previous offender and does not have to serve any consecutive sentences, Corriere della Sera reported.
Both Libero and Il Giornale, which is owned by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s family, are right-wing newspapers aligned to Berlusconi.
The 2007 article was about the story of a thirteen-year-old girl who, together with her mother, turned to the tribunal to get the abortion approved as the girl's father – separated from the mother – was not aware of the matter. As Corriere della Sera noticed, the story appeared in several newspapers at the time and at a first glance was open to controversy as it wasn’t immediately clear if the girl fully agreed to have the abortion.
The article signed under Dreyfus harshly criticized the circumstances that led to the abortion and accused the parents and the judge for having imposed on the girl a forced abortion.
The supreme court, according to an article on Il Fatto Quotidiano, released a note clarifying that at the root of the sentence is the fact the information contained in the article was false. "That the information was false had already been established on February 17, 2007, the day before the publication of Libero's article and was reported by several news organizations. In fact, the day Libero published the article, all other major newspapers except Libero reported the news correctly", the Court's note explained.
The case has sparked a debate in Italy, where journalism does not stick so resolutely to the Anglo-Saxon rules of lack of bias, and newspapers have been often protagonists of campaigns for or against different issues or political views. Back to 2009 the news broadcast Mattino5, on a TV channel owned by Berlusconi, who was at the time Prime Minister, had a hidden camera crew spying on Raimondo Mesiano, the judge who condemned Berlusconi’s Fininvest to pay 750 million euros to a rival company due to a bribery case. As reported by The Independent, “the results were beamed to millions on the Mattino5 programme, accompanied by a voiceover that ridiculed Mesiano for his "extravagant" and "eccentric behaviour", his "impatience", and, most bizarrely, the fact that he wore turquoise socks. Mesiano appeared to have done nothing stranger than go for a shave, and smoke cigarettes outside the barber shop while awaiting his turn”.
Also in 2009 Il Giornale published a series of articles alleging that Dino Boffo, editor of Avvenire, the Italian Bishops Conference daily newspaper, was a "homosexual known to the Italian secret services" and had paid damages to a woman in a 2004 harassment case, Time reported. As the article says, Il Giornale's editor at the time, Vittorio Feltri – defined in the article as Berlusconi’s attack-dog editor-in-chief - wrote that he was publishing these accusations against Boffo, who had criticized Berlusconi's private life, as a response to his "moralistic campaign" against the Prime Minister. Boffo, who repeatedly denied Feltri's charges, resigned due to the allegations.
Opinions on this case vary a lot. Some, including Il Giornale of course, claim the jail sentence is a threat to freedom of expression and a shame worthy of a dictatorship rather than a democracy. Even one of Sallusti’s fiercest antagonists Marco Travaglio, deputy editor of Il Fatto Quotidiano, published an editorial with the title “Saving private Sallusti”. The article is not a praise of Sallusti’s journalistic style but a defense of the principle for which journalists shouldn’t go to jail for what they publish. Those against the jail sentence also stress the fact that the penal code – the Rocco code - still in force today and which rules prison for defamation cases was in fact made law during the Fascist years.
Also in Il Fatto Quotidiano, Massimo Fini expresses an opposing opinion, arguing that this is just journalists coming to the defense of their colleagues. Journalists should be accountable for what they write and be punished in case of deliberate defamation.
Others disagree on the harshness of the sentence but nevertheless agree on the dangers of spreading deliberatively false information.
“Sending journalists to prison for libel offences 'is disproportionate' and represents 'a sinister intimidation'", Michele Serra wrote on left-wing La Repubblica, a paper that sits on the opposite end of the political spectrum from Il Giornale."But that does not diminish by one gram the social and moral responsibilities of anyone who uses their words publicly," Serra warned, noting that the article that landed Sallusti into trouble "was spreading false information", reported a dpa-correspondent on Europe Online.
On the weekly Internazionale Michael Braun, correspondent for the German Die Tageszeitung, writes that despite the right to defend freedom of expression, this is not a case against the expression of an opinion, but about a defamatory article which published false information.
Journalists should never be threatened with the risk of jail for what they publish, and there are several campaigns against criminal defamation around the world, such as the Declaration of Table Mountain, supported by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). Earlier today, the OSCE Media Freedom Representative Dunja Mijatović published a press release deploring the Italian criminal defamation ruling and calling for a law reform. “Imposing a prison sentence for libel is disproportionate and is not compatible with democratic standards,” Mijatović commented, adding that “the European Court of Human Rights has confirmed in numerous rulings that criminal penalties for defamation inevitably have a chilling effect on the entire media community and on media freedom.”
Journalists in jail are a threat to democracy in any country. But there must be consequences for deliberate use of the press to attack and spread false information - are fines the best solution?