Public Order, Violence against Speakers / Impunity
Perozo and others v. Venezuela
Venezuela, Bolivarian Republic of
Closed Expands Expression
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The court of first-instance in Syracuse (Italy) sentenced a mafia member to two years and eight months in prison for his death threats to investigative journalist Paolo Borrometi. In November 2017, De Carolis had sent threatening messages via Facebook Messenger to the journalist who had published several stories about his brother, Luciano considered to be an important figure in the mafia clan Bottaro-Attanasio. The Court held that the threats had constituted an attempt to commit private violence and had had the specific purpose to stop the journalist from reporting. The way used to intimidate him was the one used by the mafia affiliates claiming that their attacks would have remained unpunished. The Court took into account the mafia method of intimidation as an aggravating factor. Non-pecuniary damages were awarded not only to the journalist but also to the Italian Association of Journalists (Ordine dei Giornalisti) and the Federation of the Press (FNSI) in the light of their fight to defend freedom of expression and ensure the safety of journalists reporting about the mafia.
Paolo Borrometi is an Italian investigative journalist covering judicial reporting and the mafia in Sicily. Because of his reporting activities, he has received numerous threats from members of the mafia. On April 16, 2014, he was physically assaulted by a group of mafia affiliates and he sustained permanent damage to his shoulder. On the same day, other individuals tried to set fire to his house. Since this incident, he had been under round-the-clock police protection. He was one of nineteen Italian journalists placed under permanent police escort because of death threats received from the mafia in response to their investigative reporting.
On November 15, 2017, Paolo Borrometi published an article on the online newspaper laspia.it with the title “Syracuse, mafia crime families carve up the city: bosses running free and young members getting ready. And people watch”. In the article, Mr. Borrometi explicitly named people linked to the mafia in Syracuse (Sicily), including Luciano De Carolis, Francesco Fiorentino, Pasqualino Urso, Corrado Greco, Vito Fiorino and Danilo Briante. The article also included a picture of Luciano De Carolis. Luciano De Carolis had already been convicted for his affiliation to the Sicilian mafia. In the conclusion, Paolo Borrometi stated: “Former ‘boys’ once heading around ‘via Italia’ are trying to get their business back, paying the racket and fighting against rising boys that are imposing themselves as new mafia leaders. They are ready to do everything to reach this goal, even to use bombs. All this with common people around that are stopped by fear and that fail to report to the police. However, this is the most powerful weapon: to denounce, also anonymously. You, citizens, should be aware of this: these mafia members will go to jail soon or later. The matter is “when”, and if “when” means “as soon as possible”, that does not depend exclusively on how active the security forces are in conducting investigations but also from the reports they receive.”
On November 19, 2017, Paolo Borrometi received two voice-recorded messages sent via Facebook Messenger to his phone. These messages were from the personal profile of Francesco De Carolis (the brother of Luciano De Carolis). The two messages contained threatening and intimidating statements, such as “[y]ou must stop writing about my brother otherwise next time I will come after your mother’s or your wife’s ass and I will break yours with my hands. (…) The day I will meet you, I swear that I will punch you in the face so that you will have to go to the hospital. I will lose my name if I don’t take your face and turn it upside down. You are a despicable being who is only able to point his finger at people, you judge them and nothing else. Is that clear? Don’t forget what I’m promising you. You, piece of shit, as soon as I see again my and my brother’s face in an article, I’ll come to your house and I’ll beat you. And fuck off if you will report this to the police as I risk no jail if I only use my hands. You are warned.”
Paolo Borrometi declared that he was really upset by those messages both for their content and the way in which they were expressed. He was really worried for his own life. Despite knowing that reporting these facts to the police could put him in danger, he immediately reported the incident and provided his mobile to the police.
On November 19, 2017, Paolo Borrometi published another article on laspia.it reporting about these threats and presenting the biography of Luciano De Carolis as one of the most important mafia leaders. In the conclusion, he repeated the same invitation to the citizens, namely to denounce any illegal activity conducted by Luciano De Carolis that they are aware of.
Following Mr. Borrometi’s report to the police, the Public Prosecutor in Syracuse brought criminal proceedings against Francesco De Carolis for alleged violation of Article 56 (attempt to commit a crime) and Article 610 (private violence) of the Italian Penal Code. The Prosecutor argued that the messages demonstrated a clear intent to stop Mr. Borrometi from writing articles mentioning the two brothers and contained the threat of a physical assault. The Prosecutor considered that the aforementioned crimes had been aggravated by the mafia undertones to the threats and their reference to Luciano De Caroli’s membership to the Bottaro/Attanasio clan.
The first-instance court in Syracuse (Court) began by stating that the messages sent to Paolo Borrometi on Facebook constituted a crime of attempting to commit private violence against a person under the Italian Penal Code. In the Court’s view, the author of the messages (Francesco De Carolis) had made several threats to the journalist’s physical safety that were very serious and concrete. Therefore, it was found to have had an intimidating purpose. In particular, the Court noted that Francesco De Carolis’s words were not just warning Paolo Borrometi about the possibility of a physical assault, but the threat also conveys the message that the assault would be met with impunity by the authorities.
The Court found that Francesco De Carolis’s threats were made with the precise aim of stopping Mr. Borrometi from writing about his brother and reporting about the threatened assault. Moreover, Francesco De Carolis explicitly said “this is the only way to make you stop” and “don’t forget what I’m promising you if you name my brother again”. The Court further noted that the content of these statements had a clear effect on Mr. Borrometi’s right to self-determination.
The Court went on to observe that the intent contained in the messages never materialized since Mr. Borrometi reported the incident to the police and the general public. It followed that the crime committed in this case was an attempt to commit private violence according to Articles 56 and 610 of the Italian Penal Code. As the Supreme Court (Corte di Cassazione) clearly stated in its case-law, to secure a conviction under these charges it was unnecessary to show that the recipient of the threats was materially and effectively impeded from exercising their right to self-determination. Instead, it was sufficient that the conduct caused a sense of fear in the recipient.
The Court also found that Francesco De Carolis’ conduct was aggravated by the link between the threats and mafia conduct. Francesco De Carolis presented himself as Luciano’s brother and described him as someone he took inspiration from. Luciano de Carolis was acknowledged as being a member of the mafia in a decision from the Court of Catania (Sicily) on June 14, 2008. Furthermore, Francesco De Carolis and Paolo Borrometi declared in front of the Court that they were familiar with the criminal sanctions and decisions issued against Luciano de Carolis.
The Court went on by saying that, by threatening physical assault towards the journalist, Francesco De Carolis had attempted to force Mr. Borrometi to stop writing about his brother and the criminal activities he had been involved in as someone of high rank in the mafia. Moreover, it was clear that the mafia being referred to by Francesco De Carolis was the one operating in Syracuse, the same area where the journalist lived. Therefore, the intimidating effect of Francesco De Carolis’ words were even greater. The Court held that it was irrelevant that Luciano de Carolis was no longer a member of the mafia since the threats still had an intimidating impact.
The defense tried to argue that Francesco De Carolis’ words were not directly related to the mafia membership. Instead, they were a way of expressing anger and rage by using vulgar and aggressive language. The Court held that this argument was not acceptable.
As for damages, the Court held that Francesco De Carolis’ conduct had caused non-pecuniary damage to Mr. Borrometi due to the fear caused to his own physical integrity. It added that non-pecuniary damage had also been caused to the interveners in the case, namely the National Association of Journalists and the National Federation of the Press, as they had sought to defend and promote freedom of expression and the safety of journalists in Italy. The exact amount to be paid in non-pecuniary damages was to be assessed at a later date. The Court went on to sentence Francesco De Carolis to two years and eight months in prison.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision constituted an important precedent in Italian case-law, expanding expression by penalizing an individual for threatening physical violence against a journalist for reporting on the mafia. In the judgment, the court of first-instance made reference to the effects that the threatening messages might have had on the journalist’s activity. Moreover, the defendant had received a heftier penalty for adopting a mafia method of intimidation. By way of general information, 90% of attacks against journalists in Italy are met with impunity (Ossigeno per l’Informazione’s statistics). This case is also notable because non-pecuniary damages were awarded to the National Association of Journalists (Ordine dei Giornalisti) and Federation of the Press (FNSI) in light of the general threat to freedom of expression and to journalistic reporting caused by such threats from those connected to the mafia.
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