I recently wrote an article how defamation and other laws were being used in the West to curtail free speech. We have another such example out of Italy. I have previously criticized the defamation laws in Italy which include prosecutions of criminal defendants and their families for criticizing police or prosecutors. Now, Italian journalists are on strike after politicians pushed forward a new law that would mandate jail for those who defame people in their stories — most obviously, the politicians themselves.
The Italian Senate passed an amendment to a bill that would set a maximum sentence of a year in jail for anyone convicted of defamation, while editors-in-chief and managing editors face a maximum fine of 50,000 euros ($64,400) or 20,000 euros respectively. Recently, Alessandro Sallusti, editor-in-chief of the newspaper owned by four-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s brother, was sentenced to 14 months in prison under such a law. There was hope that the case would prompt a reduction in such sentences — though a complete bar on such prosecutions should have been the legislative response. Instead, after a series of recent scandals embarrassed legislators, they actually decided to increase the criminal penalties for journalists.
The law is an outrage against both free speech and the free press. Worst still, this attack on the free press will also hamper efforts to fight corruption and poor management in the Italian government. These politicians are striving to create a chilling effect on those who would investigate and implicate them in corrupt practices. This is precisely what the United States Supreme Court sought to avoid in limiting defamation in the United States in New York Times v. Sullivan where it required public officials (and later extended the standard to public figures) to show actual malice (or knowing falsehood or reckless disregard of the truth) to hold others for defamation. The Court sought to protect “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” This allows reporters and others to sometimes be wrong: “That erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate, and that it must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the “breathing space” that they ‘need . . . to survive.’”
The erosion of free speech among our allies in the West is continuing unabated. The cost to liberty is difficult to overstate. Civil libertarians globally need to join to resist these attacks on journalists, dissidents, and citizens.