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79-year-old Italian editor given two-year jail term for libel

The International Press Institute (IPI) today condemned an order sending a 79-year-old Italian magazine editor convicted of criminal libel to prison to serve a two-year sentence.

Italian media reported that a prosecutor in the province of Catania in Sicily signed an order on Saturday to arrest Francesco Gangemi, editor of monthly magazine The Debate, after he failed to file an application seeking an alternative to imprisonment in a timely fashion.

The sentence stems from a string of eight libel convictions that Gangemi, a journalist since 1983, accumulated in Calabria and Sicily in the last seven years. It also stems from a perjury conviction, finalised last year, which Gangemi received after he declined to disclose his source for accusations of financial misconduct. He made those accusations publicly before the municipal council of Reggio Calabria, where he briefly served as mayor in 1992. Reports said that Gangemi initially faced a six-year sentence on all the charges, which had been reduced to two years.

Gangemi is disabled and has cancer, local reports said. His son, noting Gangemi's age and physical condition, called the imprisonment "grotesque". The Italian National Press Federation (Federazione Nazionale della Stampa Italiana - FNSI) issued a statement calling Gangemi's detention "shocking" and a "monstrosity hardly conceivable for any democratic system that is based on freedom of expression".

IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi said: "The imprisonment of Mr. Gangemi is extremely disturbing, and symptomatic of the extent to which criminal defamation laws, which remain on the books throughout much of Europe, represent a threat to press freedom. Such laws are unnecessary to provide redress and, in the great majority of the cases, are used to protect public officials from necessary scrutiny and encourage self-censorship on issues of public concern. We urge Italian lawmakers to immediately free Mr. Gangemi and swiftly move forward on the long-discussed reform to decriminalise libel and bring civil defamation law in line with international standards."

A proposal that would abolish imprisonment as a penalty for criminal defamation is currently before Italy's Chamber of Deputies. However, observers, including IPI and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic, have criticised Italy's failure to fully abolish criminal provisions for defamation. Mijatovic, in a Sept. 16 statement calling for full decriminalisation, objected that the proposal failed to cap monetary damages in civil defamation cases and could result in groundless lawsuits that could potentially intimidate media.

A vote on the defamation proposal in the Chamber of Deputies was postponed last month and amendments were reportedly introduced to address some criticisms.

Criminal defamation has long been a source of debate in Italy, but calls for decriminalisation gained momentum in September 2012, when a court upheld a 14-month prison sentence for Alessandro Sallusti. He was editor of right-wing daily Libero in 2007 when the newspaper published an anonymous comment expressing outrage at a Turin judge's ruling allowing a 13-year-old girl to have an abortion. President Giorgio Napolitano commuted Sallusti's sentence in December 2012 following public outcry. Since then, various efforts to reform criminal defamation laws have been put before parliament, but none have succeeded.

In other news, IPI today also urged Italian authorities to identify who sent an explosive device to daily La Stampa journalist Massimo Numa on Thursday and to bring any party responsible to justice. Bomb disposal experts who deactivated the device said it could have detonated had it not been intercepted.

Observers have said that the attack could be linked to Numa's reports on the construction of a controversial new high-speed rail line from Lyon to Turin. However, a group that has been very vocal in opposing the rail line, the No-TAV (No to High Speed Rail) movement, denied sending the explosive, according to Agence France-Presse reports.

The incident marked the second time this year that an explosive device was sent to La Stampa's Turin offices. In April someone sent a package containing a cloth compact disc carrier with explosive powder, cables and a detonator inside. The device did not explode when opened, but investigators said it was capable of doing so and could have caused serious injury.

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