ARTICLE 19 Europe has commented on proposals to amend Italian defamation legislation. While we welcome the initiative and the potential for change, we remain concerned that these proposals will not be comprehensive enough to protect journalists and their right to freedom of expression.
In our analysis, we raise concerns that none of the proposals include full decriminalisation of defamation in line with international standards on freedom of expression. Instead, current draft texts propose a substantive rise in criminal fines and additional sanctions for the offence. They also lack a proper framework to prevent strategic litigation against public participation (SLAPPs).
We urge the government to take steps to meet its international human rights obligations and fully protect and promote a safe media environment in Italy by offering a range of recommendations for how the proposals can fully ensure the protection of journalists.
The reform of Italian defamation legislation is long overdue. Over the last decade, criminal defamation legislation, with sanction of imprisonment for defamation through the press, has been challenged at the European Court of Human Rights (European Court) and at the Italian Constitutional Court. Both found that the penalty of imprisonment for defamation constitutes a disproportionate interference with the right to freedom of expression, but legislators have been slow to respond with action.
In September 2022, MP Balboni of Fratelli d’Italia finally undertook steps to adopt reform and proposed the so-called Balboni Bill to amend the Criminal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code, and the Press Law. Members of Parliament from opposition parties also put forward their proposals, currently in the form of four draft laws.
None of the proposals are in line with international freedom of expression standards and they all require substantive amendments before a parliamentary vote. Importantly, they do not abolish criminal defamation; they instead introduce higher fines along with additional sanctions, such as disciplinary measures. Restrictions on speech are permissible when they are clearly provided for by legislation that responds to a ‘pressing social need’ with proportionate measures. Criminal sanctions, including imprisonment, are never an appropriate or proportionate penalty.
After fully decriminalising defamation and bringing stronger protection of freedom of expression to civil defamation law, legislators should consider comprehensive reform to prevent the misuse of legislation to undertake SLAPPs, such as a new type of summary proceedings as well as non-legal measures like awareness-raising and training. No such measures are included in the current draft laws.
ARTICLE 19 urges Italian legislators to not continue discussion on the current proposals and to proceed with any further delay to draft comprehensive reforms to bring Italian legislation in line with international standards on freedom of expression.
We are also concerned about the decision to run a consultation about these proposals with a small group of stakeholders. Meaningful participation needs to include a broad range of stakeholders including civil society organisations and other key actors in the process. ARTICLE 19 Europe remains at the disposal to further discuss the necessary amendments to fulfil internal and European human rights obligations.
This legal analysis by ARTICLE 19 Europe is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries, and Ukraine. The project is co-funded by the European Commission.