On November 2, the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, the UN Secretary General António Guterres has invited the world to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives bringing important stories to the public, as well as those who continue to practice journalism every day despite intimidation and threats.
While journalists continue to face violence around the world, with a staggering number still being murdered in the course of their work, this year has seen some positive developments in the fight against the climate of impunity in Italy. Domestic courts in Italy have started convicting and sentencing individuals who have attacked journalists, and, in this context, first-instance judges have shown their commitment to applying heavier penalties to those who have attacked journalists with the intent to stop them from reporting.
Two judgments, in particular, have been breaking new ground in this area. They are namely Public Prosecutor v. Francesco De Carolis and Public Prosecutor v. Roberto Spada. The two journalists who were the victims in these cases, Paolo Borrometi and Daniele Piervincenzi respectively, were threatened and attacked in such a harsh and violent way that they were unable to carry out their journalistic work without fear. This is a serious interference with their right to freedom of expression. As the European Court of Human Rights has stated, States are required to create a favorable environment for journalists (and other citizens) to participate in public debate, enabling them to express their opinions and ideas without fear (see Dink v. Turkey, para. 137). In summary, in these cases there was a positive obligation on public institutions in Italy, including the courts, to ensure that such attacks were not treated with impunity.
In the first case, Paolo Borrometi received death threats via Facebook Messenger from Francesco De Carolis. These threats followed a series of Mr. Barrometi’s articles that referred to Francesco De Carolis’ brother, Luciano, and alleged that he was an important figure in the mafia clan Bottaro-Attanasio. The Facebook messages said “[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.” The messages also implied that if Mr. De Carolis’ attacked Mr. Barrometi, the attack would be met with impunity. For this case, the court of first-instance in Syracuse, Italy, sentenced Francesco De Carolis to two years and eight months in prison. The Court held that the threats had constituted an attempt to commit private violence and had the specific purpose of stopping the journalist from reporting on the mafia. The court also took issue with the mafia-style method used to intimidate the journalist and the inference that the attacks would have remained unpunished. The mafia undertones to the threats were treated as an aggravating factor requiring a heavier penalty.
In Daniele Piervincenzi’s case, he was brutally beaten by an alleged mafioso, Roberto Spada, as a way to stop the journalist questioning him further about his links with the mafia and support for the extreme right-wing political party Casapound. Mr. Spada was filmed headbutting the journalist, and the video of the incident went viral. The public, and also the judges presiding over his case, acknowledged that this violent reaction demonstrated the position of power Mr. Spada believed he held due to his position in the local mafia. Moreover, he relied on this mafia connection to intimidate the journalist, and to deter him from carrying out journalistic activities in the local area. On June 18, 2018, the court of first-instance in Rome convicted Mr. Spada of the offences of “private violence” and “personal injury”. The court sentenced him to 6 years in prison. Again, in this case, the mafia-style method of intimidation adopted by Mr. Spada was considered to be an aggravating factor requiring a greater sentence.
It is hoped that these two decisions have started a new trend in Italian jurisprudence. Previously, domestic courts sentenced those responsible for attacking journalists in the same way as they would sentence any other person who attacked another individual. In other words, the courts did not impose a penalty that took into account the harm caused to the right to freedom of expression or the press by attacks on journalists. This was the situation despite the fact that an Italian NGO, Ossigeno per l’Informazione, had been advocating for amendments to be made to the Penal Code to include a specific provision recognizing that where an attack is perpetrated against a journalist this should be deemed an aggravating factor calling for a higher penalty. The cases of Daniele Piervincenzi and Paolo Borrometi are a step in the right direction because they recognize that mafia-style intimidation aimed at a journalist is an aggravating factor. This was an important development for the purpose of dealing with impunity in relation to attacks on journalists in Italy. As Ossigeno per l’Informazione had publicly stated, during the Italian commemorations for the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists at the Italian Senate in 2017, this attitude by domestic courts of not taking into account a victim’s status as a journalist was, in itself, a form of impunity.
The two judgments come at a desperate time for journalists in Italy, as attacks are largely met with inaction on the part of the authorities. In 2018, for example, 90% of attacks against journalists in Italy have been treated with impunity. In 2017, statistics from Ossigeno per l’Informazione showed an impunity rate of 98%. These cases bring a glimmer of hope, as both judges made clear reference to the attackers’ intentions to frighten the journalists away from covering certain stories. Furthermore, the judges went so far as to award non-pecuniary damages to the National Association of Journalists (Ordine dei Giornalisti) and the Federation of the Press (FNSI) in light of the general threat to freedom of expression and to journalistic reporting caused by the mafia-related threats and attacks against these two journalists.
Aside from these positive developments, it should be noted that the criminal law still lacks any explicit recognition of the harm that can be caused to freedom of expression when crimes are committed against journalists in the course of their reporting. Proper acknowledgement in the legislation would better protect the safety of journalists and would help ensure appropriate remedies are ordered in cases where attacks on journalists can have a severe “chilling effect” on freedom of the press more generally.
Part of these observations were presented by Lawyer Andrea Di Pietro, legal coordinator of the legal defence office at Ossigeno per l’Informazione, during the Italian celebrations for the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists that were held at the Italian Senate on 22 October 2018 under the patronage of UNESCO and in the framework of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, which is funded by the European Commission. You can read more about the event here.