Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) held that Italy violated Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) when it sentenced a newspaper editor to a jail term after he was convicted of defamation. The court held that imprisonment was a disproportionate punishment for defamation because no exceptional circumstances justified the jail term.
Two prosecutors from Palermo took legal action for defamation against Maurizio Belpietro, the editor of the newspaper Il Giornale, after the paper published an article that claimed the prosecutors had mismanaged an inquiry into Mafia activities and contained strong accusations against them. Belpietro was initially acquitted by the District Court of Milan but was sentenced on appeal to four months imprisonment (suspended) and the payment of €100,000 for compensation and legal expenses. The Court of Cassation confirmed the sentence.
Belpietro, even though he was not the author of the article, was responsible for checking its content as the editor of the paper under Article 57 of the Italian Criminal Code. The author of the piece, Senator Raffaele Iannuzzi, could not be prosecuted because he was protected by parliamentary immunity. According to Italian law, members of Parliament cannot be held accountable for opinions expressed in relation to their public mandate.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that Italy breached Article 10 of the ECHR for sentencing newspaper editor Maurizio Belpietro to four months imprisonment for the publication of a defamatory article. The ECtHR held that, although law and social necessity justified the interference with Belpietro’s right to freedom of expression, because the case lacked any elements of exceptionality, imprisonment was considered a disproportionate punishment for the crime of defamation.
ECtHR judgments become final after three months and cannot be subsequently appealed, and the judgment for Belpietro v. Italy became final on December 24, 2013.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The holding in Belpietro is consistent with the ECtHR’s prior rulings regarding the infliction of severe punishments for crimes related to the exercise of freedom of expression. The ECtHR recalled the case of Cumpănă v. Romania, where it had previously affirmed the principle that imprisonment can only be considered appropriate in exceptional circumstances, and certainly not in ordinary cases of defamation.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
ECtHR judgments are binding on the parties before it.
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