A proposed libel law introduced in Italy's Upper House Wednesday stirred up a frenzy of protest among media leaders and risks causing splits in the political parties sustaining the technocrat government of Premier Mario Monti.
The new law, which will get a reading in the Lower House next week, seeks to eliminate jail terms in cases of libel, replacing them with among others hefty fines and the right of the offended party to immediately get his or her side of the story out in the accused publication free from any editorial oversight. Warning that the proposed law will lead to a curtailing of press freedom, Franco Siddi, head of Italys national press federation, said: "We'll repeat it one more time: on the freedom of the press, on the right to report, on the right of the citizens to be informed we can't be faced down by anyone who proposes restrictions of any kind".
He added that the law resembled one from the era of former premier Silvio Berlusconi, Monti's predecessor, who in his day also attempted to pass media-restricting laws.
Referring to the heavy fines and damages publications could incur in libel cases under the proposed new law, Giulio Anselmi, the president of the national journalists' federation, said: "Today these norms are absurd and dangerous as they can condition the survival of many newspapers and reveal an absolute disdain for press freedom. It is to be hoped that the (parliamentary) debate will radically alter it".
According to the proposed law, fines of between 5,000 and 100,000 euros can be awarded to anyone who has won a libel case.
In an interview with ANSA, Carlo Federico Grosso, a criminal lawyer, described the proposed law as "pure folly". "Eliminating prison sentences is absolutely reasonable in terms of criminal policy, but the rest is an attack against press freedom," Grosso said, adding that prison sentencing for press crimes has "no right to exist, considering that detention should only be used for the gravest crimes".
Grosso also takes issue with the proposed fines, saying they risk becoming tools for "intimidation", as small publications might be forced into bankruptcy. He adds that large publications might also "face difficulties and will intimidate editors and reporters in order to avoid risky reporting which could lead to libel suits".
The final law is likely to look very different from the version that made its way to the Senate Wednesday considering that senators had already tabled some 140 amendments.