Defamation remains a criminal offence in Italy.
The Italian Criminal Code foresees the following criminal offences:
Defamation (Criminal Code Art. 595): Defined as injuring the reputation of an absent person via communication with others. The penalty is a fine of up to one year. If the act of insult or defamation consists in the allegation of a specific fact, the potential penalty is increased to imprisonment for up to two years or a fine of €2,065. If committed by means or the press or otherwise publicly, the penalty is a fine of at least €516 or imprisonment from six months to three years. Penalties are also increased if the defamatory statement is directed at a political, administrative or judicial body or at a representative thereof or an authority constituted in college.
Defamation is also considered a criminal offence under Law No. 47/1948 (Provisions on the Press, Defamation, Crimes Committed against the Profession and Criminal Procedure, hereinafter “Press Law”). According to Art. 13 of the Press Law, defamation committed by the press is punishable by a fine of no less than 10,000 lire (€5.16) or imprisonment from one to six years. In order for defamation to be liable under the Press Law, it must involve an accusation of fact (attribuzione di un fatto determinato).
Criminal Defamation of Public Officials
According to Art. 595 of the Italian Criminal Code, defamation committed against a political, administrative of judicial body or a representative thereof is considered as aggravated defamation, resulting in higher penalties as compared to defamation committed against private persons.
Criminal Defamation of the Head of State
Offending the honour or prestige of the President of Italy is a criminal offence under Art. 278 of the Italian Criminal Code. The penalty is imprisonment from one to five years.
Criminal Defamation of the State and its Symbols
Defamation of the Italian Republic, the legislative assembly, the government, the Constitutional Court or other courts and the armed forces is criminalised under Art. 290 of the Italian Criminal Code. The penalty is a fine of €1,000 to €5,000.
Defamation of the Italian nation is a crime under Art. 291 of the Criminal Code. The penalty is a fine of €1,000 to €5,000.
Insulting or damaging the flag or other emblem of the state is a criminal act under Art. 292 of the Criminal Code. The penalty is a fine ranging from €1,000 to €5,000, or from €5,000 to €10,000 if the act is committed at a public celebration or official ceremony. Smearing or publicly destroying or damaging the national flag or state symbol is punishable with imprisonment for up to two years.
Criminal Defamation of Foreign Heads of State
Criminal Defamation of Foreign States and Symbols
The Italian Criminal Code, under Art. 299, prohibits publicly insulting the flag or emblem of a foreign state, used in accordance with Italian domestic law. The punishment is a fine of €100 to €1,000. This, however, only applies insofar as the law of the relevant foreign state provides reciprocal protection for the Italian flag under criminal law.
Criminal Defamation of the Deceased
While there is no specific criminal offence, Art. 597(2) of the Italian Criminal Code explicitly provides that where there has been insult to the memory of a deceased person, or the defamed dies before bringing a suit the case can be brought by their next of kin as long as is it falls within the statute of limitation.
Art. 724 of the Criminal Code makes it an administrative offence to publicly insult the dead. The punishment is a fine between €51 and €309.
Blasphemy is an administrative offence under Art. 724 of the Italian Criminal Code. The punishment is a fine between €51 and €309.
Additionally, publicly insulting a religion by expressing contempt for those who profess it is a criminal offence under Art. 403 of the Criminal Code. The punishment is a fine ranging from €1,000 to €5,000. Higher fines (€2,000 to €6,000) apply when the offence is committed via contempt of a minister. Additionally, whoever, in a place of worship or in a public place, vilifies a religion via insulting objects of worship, may be punished with a fine ranging from €1,000 to €5,000 (Art. 404).
Art. 402 of the Criminal Code, which banned insult of state religions, was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court in 2000.
While monitoring work by press freedom organisations and anecdotal accounts have long raised concerns about the application of criminal defamation laws in Italy, hard evidence on the scope of problem were previously difficult to obtain. A request filed by the International Press Institute in 2015 for criminal justice data went unanswered by the Italian statistics agency.
However, in 2016, the Italian monitoring group Ossigeno per l’Informazione succeeded for the first time in obtaining detailed statistical data on the application of criminal defamation laws in Italy. The data reveal a far more sobering picture than previously thought.
According to the report published by Ossigeno per l’Informazione in October 2016, on average over 5,000 criminal libel complaints are filed in Italy annually. In 2015 alone, 475 journalists were convicted of libel, of which 320 were sentenced to a fine and 155 to imprisonment. The report notes: “Prudently estimating an average sentence of eight months in detention, it can be said that every year there were issued sentences totalling 103 years in prison.”
The report also raised concerns about the length of trial proceedings. On average, preliminary inquiries in libel cases take two and a half years, and it takes courts nearly four years to issue a first-degree sentence. Despite the extensive duration of proceedings, the overall rate of convictions is low. The report stated:
“In the 2014-2015 period only 8 per cent of the defined criminal proceedings have concluded the trial with a condemnation of the accused (5.8 in Court and 1.6 per cent in preliminary stages), while in 87 per cent of cases the courts have acquitted the charged journalist with the different formulas set out in the procedural code. For the remaining 5 percent of cases, the solutions do not fall into either of these two categories.”
Criminal Defamation and Media
In 2015, an Italian court sentenced the editor of a news website to nine months in prison for defaming a public prosecutor. Roberto D’Agostino, founder of the site Dagospia, was convicted in late February 2015 of defaming a Genoa prosecutor, Alberto Lari, after republishing an article from the Italian newspaper L’Espresso that raised questions over the prosecutor’s wife’s recent promotion. According to reports, the version of the L’Espresso article that appeared on Dagospia contained an altered title that explicitly suggested that the former president of the Ligurian legislature had promoted Lari’s wife in exchange for the prosecutor’s agreeing not to prosecute the president on embezzlement charges. News reports state that D’Agostino denied having intended to defame the prosecutor, to whom he later apologised in court. A Milan judge last week disagreed, reportedly citing the changed title. D’Agostino was also sentenced to pay €10,000 in damages .
In 2012, a court in South Tyrol sentenced journalist Orfeo Donatini and editor Tiziano Marson of the newspaper Alto Adige to four months in prison after reporting that a provincial councillor, Sven Knoll, was under police investigation for alleged connections to neo-Nazi groups. The information had already been published in the weekly magazine L’Espresso and had come from a confidential police report. The defendants had originally been acquitted, but Italy’s Court of Cassation ordered the lower court to review its ruling. The defendants were also ordered to pay Knoll €15,000 in damages.
In 2012, the Court of Cassation upheld the conviction, and 14-month prison sentence, of Alessandro Sallusti, former editor of the magazine Libero over a column that appeared in Libero expressing outrage at a judge’s decision to grant an abortion to a 13-year-old girl. The column reportedly suggested, among other things, the use of the death penalty for the judge, the girls’ parents, and the gynaecologist. Although the column was written under an anonymous pseudonym, following Sallusti’s conviction it was revealed that the author was Renato Farina, a member of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s party. The prison sentence was widely criticised in Italy and was later commuted by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.
In 2013, a 79-year-old magazine editor, Franceso Gangemi, was sentenced to two years in prison after having been convicted for libel eight times in the last seven years. Reports stated that Gangemi failed to file a timely application seeking an alternative to imprisonment.
Also in 2013, editor Giorgio Mule and journalists Andrea Marcenaro and Riccardo Arena of a Milan-based weekly magazine Panorama were sentenced to eight months and one year in prison, respectively, in relation to a 2009 article focusing on alleged connections between the family of a Palermo state prosecutor and organised crime. The court also ordered Mule to pay €20,000 in damages to the prosecutor.
In 2009, the Court of Cassation confirmed the four-month prison sentence of editor Maurizio Belpietro after Belpietro published an article written by an Italian senator, Raffaele Iannuzzi, that was held to contain defamatory claims with respect to two prosecutors. The Court of Cassation stated that Iannuzzi’s parliamentary immunity did not extend to Belpietro, who was additionally sentenced to pay costs and damages in the amount of €110,000. The case was appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that the prison sentence amounted to a violation of Art. 10, but stated that newspaper editors had a responsibility to ensure that they did not publish defamatory content, even when written by a parliamentarian.
Prior to the Sallusti case, another journalist, Gianluigi Guarino, in 2010 served 43 days in prison for criminal defamation before his pardon and subsequent release stemming from his reported accumulation of more than a dozen un-appealed convictions during his tenure as director of the Corriere di Caserta.
In May 2011, a court in Chieti sentenced three Italian journalists to prison for their reports about an alleged investigation of the mayor of Sulmona by the Financial Crime Investigation Unit (Guardia di Finanza). Walter Nerone and Claudio Lattanzio, who were employed by the Il Centro newspaper, were each sentenced to one year in prison without parole, while Luigi Vicinanza, former editor-in-chief of Il Centro, received an eight-month prison sentence, also without parole. The journalists were additionally ordered to pay €12,000 in damages and cover the costs of the trial.
Recent Legal Changes
The criminal offence of insult (ingiuria) was repealed in June 2016.
Proposal to increase criminal penalties for defamation
In May 2016, the Justice Committee of the Italian Senate unanimously approved a bill to elevate the maximum possible prison term for defamation by up to one-half when the alleged victim is a public, administrative or judicial official. If passed, journalists accused of defaming public officials would have risked up to nine years in prison .
An international outcry followed the Justice Committee’s approval and various press freedom groups elevated the issue via the Council of Europe’s Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists. According to the Platform on 8 June 2016, the plenary of the Senate has decided to remove from the Bill the provision which would have increased prison terms from six to nine years in case of defamation of elected officials and judges – given the risk of chilling effect on media freedom.
Proposed reform of defamation law
In October 2013, the Chamber of Deputies passed a bill that aimed to bring Italian defamation law more in line with international and European standards, including by abolishing the possibility of imprisonment for the offence of defamation. This bill was the subject of several independent analyses, notably by the Venice Commission and Article 19.
The bill would apply to online and audiovisual media, as opposed to the current law. It would remove the possibility of imprisonment for defamation offences and cap criminal fines (in the Criminal Code, fines would be capped at €10,000 [€15,000 when alleging a specific fact], doubled when committed by the media; in the Press Law, defamatory allegations known to be untrue would incur a fine of €20,000 to €60,000). These proposed changes were welcomed by the Venice Commission, which nevertheless underscored the need to adhere to a principle of proportionality when assigning any fines to avoid a chilling effect.
A “very positive development” for the Commission was the proposed removal of a clause punishing defamation more harshly when directed at public institutions and agencies. By contrast, the Commission expressed concern over a proposed amendment to the Press Law allowing courts to punish journalists by prohibiting them from practising their profession. The Commission stated that this provision was “problematic from the standpoint of the principle that the press must be able to perform the role of a public watchdog in a democratic society” and suggested referral of this issue to media self-regulatory bodies.
For its part, the CSO Article 19, although it welcomed the Italian governments efforts to modernise its defamation legislation, stated that it found the reform only “partial”. The organisation expressed particular concern over et al:
• the failure to completely decriminalise defamation and insult
• the threat of “excessive fines” and the possible prohibition on exercising journalist
• failure to guarantee, in statute, defences for journalists targeted in defamation proceedings
• the retention of criminal provisions punishing insult of the Italian state, the president, and constitutional bodies
• the lack of a cap on civil compensation and the lack of a statute of limitations for filing damage claims
As of January 2017, progress on this bill has stalled. It is unclear whether it will be considered again.
Notes and Acknowledgements
Information for Italy was originally collected by IPI as part of the “Out of Balance” report, published in January 2015 with support from the European Commission and incorporating research contributed by Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University in Budapest and by the SHARE Foundation in Belgrade. This entry was later expanded and updated by IPI as part of a study commissioned by the Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
A fully footnoted version of this entry is available in the OSCE study. This entry was last updated in March 2017.
The information contained in this database is for informational and advocacy purposes only. If you are a journalist facing a defamation claim, you should seek legal advice from a qualified attorney. However, if you are unable to find such an attorney, IPI may be able to assist you in doing so. Please contact us at info(at)ipi.media.