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December 18, 2023

In Italy, those who protest, criticize, or write against the authorities are increasingly at risk

Insight by Chiara Pedrocchi

A democracy does not waver when dissenting voices exist, but when these are repressed. In Italy, lawsuits and legal actions aimed at intimidating and silencing journalists, activists, citizens, and members of civil society who mobilize against specific abuses and injustices are becoming more widespread. Often, political figures, companies, or multinational corporations with significant financial resources and influence in the media system - frequently funded or controlled by the same entities - target the most critical voices. The near absence of public interest journalism and the narrowing of civic spaces limit the development of critical thinking. Consequently, fewer citizens are aware and informed about real emergencies.

These were the main topics of the conference "SLAPP! A smack to freedom of expression against journalists and civil society", held on October 10, 2023, at the University of Milan and organized by Voice Over Foundation in collaboration with UniLibera Milan. The event is part of the "Decolonizing Narrative," a series of seminars aiming to decolonize language and change the dominant narrative on urgent issues like climate crisis, migration, or the situation in Palestine.

What are SLAPPs? Definition and situation in Italy.

SLAPPs, an acronym for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, are strategic legal actions against journalists and human rights defenders. Usually, these involve a financial or power imbalance between the plaintiff and the defendant. The goal of SLAPPs is to silence and intimidate the most critical voices, thereby limiting debate on matters of public interest and dissuading others from mobilizing. "SLAPPs are referred to when legal action aims to silence issues concerning public health, climate, environment, safety, and fundamental rights," explains Sielke Kelner, researcher and advocacy officer for the Balkans, Caucasus & Eastern Partnership countries at Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa within the Media Freedom Rapid Response and coordinator of the Italian anti-Slapp group.

According to the Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE) report, 2022 marked the year with the highest number of SLAPPs in Europe, totaling 161 cases.Italy had already seen a significant increase in the number of reports to the Council of Europe's Platform for the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists in 2018.

In 2023, Civicus, an international organization monitoring civil society spaces, access to information, and the ability for civil society to interact openly and transparently with public decision-makers, assigned Italy a score of 76 out of 100. It's an average score, but the country's civic space is defined as narrowed.

An example concerns the funds from the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP): among the fundamental requirements for accessing resources from European institutions was citizen and stakeholder involvement. "In Italy, participation has long been lacking under the pretext of urgency", denounces Federico Anghelé, founder and director ofThe Good Lobby's Italian branch, a non-profit organization dedicated to making society more democratic. The NRRP Civic Observatory, of which The Good Lobby is part, only gained access to the Meloni government's decision-making center on October 28 after months of ignored requests, a petition with over 10,000 signatures, and a mailbombing that sent nearly 7,000 emails to Raffaele Fitto, Minister for European Affairs, Cohesion Policies, and the NRRP, and his closest collaborators. According to Anghelé, "in Italy, special interests have more say than general interests. Moreover, there's no legislative framework facilitating the participation of stakeholders and citizens in political decisions that affect everyone." In a liberal democracy, the task should be to safeguard individual rights and freedoms, including freedom of thought and the press. At present, this isn't the case in Italy.

Legal actions against journalists limit the right to be informed.

According to the report made by Freedom House, an international organization focusing on democracy, political freedoms, and human rights, in Italy, the concentration of media ownership in a few hands is the biggest obstacle to freedom of expression. Added to this are intimidations from organized crime, which not only threaten freedom of expression but also endanger the right to be informed and the oversight of power.

Lorenzo Bagnoli, a journalist and co-director of IrpiMedia, a journalistic outlet and the first center for investigative journalism in Italy, states that most lawsuits against journalists are brought by entrepreneurs who often have ties to politics. In recent years, IrpiMedia has faced numerous lawsuits and compensation claims. These actions impact the sustainability of a small independent investigative outlet and the energy of its staff.

Moreover, lawsuits and legal actions often result in forms of self-censorship. One of the solutions, emphasized by Bagnoli, is "to adopt a serious, accurate, fact-based approach for all investigations, avoiding naming individuals marginally involved." A method not always followed within newsrooms where journalists are forced to work on a piece-rate basis, publishing multiple articles per day, lacking control over the quality of their writing and what gets published.

However, lawsuits can also arise years later, when exercising the right to information. This was the case with Lorenzo Frigerio, a journalist and writer, coordinator of Liberainformazione, an observatory on information for legality and against mafias, and regional representative of Libera Lombardia. Due to an article published in 2016 defending a colleague slandered by Telesud, a television station in Trapani, the publisher initiated a civil lawsuit for defamation. Seven years later, in January 2023, the court rejected the case. According to the court, Frigerio had exercised the rights to information and criticism. This demonstrates that Slapp cases can extend for years, affecting the mental health and work of journalists.

Besides lawsuits, there are more insidious ways to limit the rights of citizens to be informed, such as de-indexing articles, a mechanism making them invisible to search engines, regulated by the Cartabia reform of 2022. This reform introduced various changes to the criminal process, solidifying the right to be forgotten and giving individuals acquitted the opportunity to request the de-indexing of online content related to them.

Criminalizing civil society.

Journalists aren't the only ones facing SLAPPs and pressures for their public information activities. For activists, citizens, and members of civil society, the situation isn't any better. For instance, Decree-Law 693, called the "Eco-vandals law decree". The proposal wasn't approved, but on October 27, 2023, a new bill was presented by Lega's deputy Gianangelo Bof, envisioning the penalization of blocking roads with one's body, with imprisonment for up to 3 years. These government initiatives aim to intimidate civil society actions like Ultima Generazione. Simone Ficicchia is part of this organization and has participated in various nonviolent civil disobedience demonstrations, such as soiling the Milan Scala with washable paint to protest the government's inaction towards the climate crisis. It was due to this action that Ficicchia received a request for special public security surveillance, later rejected by the Milan Court.

In Italy, those protesting against public aid supporting gas and oil multinationals and proposing alternatives and concrete measures, such as a reparations fund, are systematically fined (each activist receives a fine of 1,333 euros for each roadblock). Meanwhile, extreme weather events multiply throughout the territory but continue to be defined as "bad weather" by most "mainstream media". Even more rarely are causes and effects of the ongoing climate crisis connected, placing responsibility on the economic and industrial system.

Those who protest using nonviolent civil disobedience practices know they face repression but also recognize they have no other choices. As Ficicchia explains, "the climate crisis is an existential issue seriously threatening the existence of the human species."

Civil disobedience is a form of political struggle citizens can resort to when they believe that the state authority has gone beyond the limits of good governance, namely its institutional duties. However, its exercise is increasingly limited by the restriction of civic spaces, starting from journalists' rights to document such protests. "Law enforcement agencies have often prevented journalists from documenting our nonviolent protests. That's why, within Ultima Generazione, we've assigned some individuals the role of Observers to monitor law enforcement abuses," explains Ficicchia.

The limitation of public space also occurs through what Kiran Chaudhuri, a lawyer at the European Legal Support Center (ELSC), an independent organization defending associations, NGOs, groups, and individuals advocating for Palestinian rights in continental Europe and the UK, calls "defunding", namely cutting funds to organizations advocating for freedom. In this regard, in November 2023, several Italian organizations, like Un Ponte Per and the Association of Italian Organizations for Cooperation and International Solidarity (AOI), signed an open letter about the decision of several European states to suspend and review funding for Palestinian and Israeli NGOs.

Another case of limiting civic space is the implementation of the IHRA working definition, the definition of antisemitism proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an organization promoting Holocaust remembrance. This definition doesn't merely outline the concept but also provides examples of what attitudes to consider antisemitic. Among these, criticism of Israel as responsible for an apartheid regime and comparisons between Israel's policies and Nazi policies. The IHRA definition is adopted at the national and international levels as a non-binding policy on antisemitism. However, as Chaudhuri explains, "it's often applied institutionally as an actual legislative norm". Chaudhuri cites the case of Germany, where the anti-BDS motion, aimed at countering the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign against companies supporting Israel's apartheid policy, remains at the national level.

Other ways to silence dissent include the use of defamation campaigns and terrorism charges, based on often vague counter-terrorism policies that target individuals and organizations critical of Israel's state policies. All of this risks generating the so-called Chilling Effect, namely the fear of exercising one's right to expression caused by policies, practices, or laws resulting in formal consequences (sanctions, legal actions) or informal ones (threats, attacks, defamation).

The legal perspective.

The right to be informed also involves access to public administration documents. Without documents that, by law, should be in the public domain, citizens cannot be informed. "Limiting access to information is a cultural strategy: it's better if people don't know and don't see, because otherwise, someone might ask questions," explains Veronica Dini, a lawyer, civil mediator, and owner of the Dini-Saltalamacchia law firm, assisting activists, environmentalists, and local communities affected by multinational corporations, among others. "The problem also lies in access to justice: the costs to file these requests make this right an exclusive and undemocratic field."

Often, reference is made to the right to privacy to block citizens' access to justice. As Dini points out, "the privacy supervisor is targeted with requests promoted by municipalities intending to block citizens' and associations' access to documents because there's a right to privacy. But when it comes to the environment, territorial governance, and human rights, privacy is not much involved".

Dini argues that all these actions are "social control tactics and examples of enemy criminal law", where enemy criminal law refers to a parallel and separate track of criminal law with a different level of guarantee because it doesn't address ordinary citizens but rather targets whoever is identified as the enemy within society.

So, how to protect oneself? "Now more than ever, it's essential to reclaim democracy as a plural and conflictual system," asserts the lawyer. "Expressing our opposing voice is a right. Social conflict should not be repressed but is crucial because it exerts control over power."

Beyond exercising the right to criticism, it's essential to unite, rebuild communities, act synergistically, forming a common front of journalists, activists, lawyers, citizens, and defenders of civil society, reducing flags and activating actions for the common good, such as freedom of expression, the right to criticism, and the right to be informed.

Editing by Sara Manisera

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