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Italian government accused of using defamation law to silence intellectuals

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The government of Giorgia Meloni is making strategic use of defamation suits to silence public intellectuals, a philosopher who is being sued by the Italian prime minister’s brother-in-law has claimed.

In the latest of a series of lawsuits drawing on Italy’s comparatively harsh defamation laws, Donatella Di Cesare of Sapienza University in Rome will appear at a criminal court in the Italian capital on 15 May, after a complaint by the agriculture minister, Francesco Lollobrigida, over comments she made comparing one of his speeches to Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Lollobrigida, who is married to Meloni’s sister and considered one of the PM’s closest allies, sparked controversy in April 2023 when at a trade union conference he called on the country not to “surrender to the idea of ethnic replacement”, which he described as “Italians are having fewer children, we replace them with someone else”.

The trial centres on comments Di Cesare made the same day on the talkshow DiMartedì in which she perceived there to be white supremacist connotations in the term “ethnic replacement”, saying it could be found in the pages of Mein Kampf and in National Socialist ideology.

The philosopher, who has written books on continuities between Nazi thinking and modern-day conspiracy theories, said Lollobrigida spoke “like a gauleiter”, a regional leader of Hitler’s party.

In his criminal complaint, Lollobrigida said Di Cesare had portrayed him as “a Nazi who glorifies concentration camps and espouses extermination camps as a solution to immigration issues”, which was “not only defamatory but also shameful”.

“I fail to understand how my words could even remotely be likened to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf,” the minister said. Di Cesare’s remarks, he continued, were “solely aimed at destroying a person and smearing both myself and my associates”.

Donatella Di Cesare: ‘Those who draw attention to the movement’s fascist roots are being punished.’ Photograph: Simona Granati/Corbis/Getty Images

Di Cesare, 67, said her comments were not intended as a slur but as political criticism. “I said Lollobrigida spoke like a gauleiter, not that he was one,” she told the Guardian. “What we are seeing here is legal proceedings against a historical comparison.”

She said she believed the legal proceedings were part of a political strategy. “The aim of defamation trials like mine is not just to intimidate, but to push leftwing intellectuals outside the public discourse,” she said. “Meloni has been very keen to lend the post-fascist movement a new, more acceptable face. Those who draw attention to the movement’s fascist roots are being punished.”

Meloni and Lollobrigida did not reply to requests to comment for this article.

Defamation in Italy can be tried at civil or criminal courts. At the latter, the crime of aggravated defamation can be found punishable by six years in jail, the harshest sentence of this type in the EU after Slovakia, where it can lead to seven-year jail sentences.

A court hearing in Rome on 15 May will decide whether Di Cesare’s case will be settled at a civil court or criminal trial.

During Meloni’s first year in power in Italy, Europe’s highest number of strategic lawsuits against public participation – so-called Slapp cases – were brought in the country, according to a recent study by the European parliament’s committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs (LIBE).

In parallel to the suit against Di Cesare, the classicist historian Luciano Canfora, 81, is facing an aggravated defamation trial in Bari, Puglia. In April 2022, before Meloni was appointed prime minister, Canfora described the politician as “a neo-Nazi at heart”, which Meloni’s complaint said was “apt to distort and falsify her political identity”.

In another criminal defamation case involving the prime minister, the writer Roberto Saviano was in October 2023 fined €1,000 for defaming Meloni and Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right League, as “bastards” on television in 2020 over their vitriol towards NGO-run ships rescuing people in the Mediterranean.

A reform of the defamation law remains nowhere in sight in spite of a recommendation by Italy’s highest court, with Meloni’s government last month postponing a parliamentary debate on a bill supposed to end the criminalisation of journalists and writers accused of defamation.

“In Italy, we have seen defamation cases against politicians and journalists, but this is different,” Di Cesare said. “Public intellectuals like Saviano, Canfora or me don’t have the protection of a political party or a newspaper.”

According to figures from the Italian press freedom organisation Ossigeno per l’informazione, more than 5,000 lawsuits for defamation are filed against Italian journalists every year. Ninety per cent are eventually rejected as groundless.

“In Italy the practice of lodging accusations of defamation is often used as a legal manoeuvre to deter or threaten journalists, who often abandon their reporting while under investigation,” claimed Alberto Spampinato, the group’s founder.

The 2023 annual report from the Council of Europe’s Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists said there had been no decline in the use of strategic lawsuits in Italy. “Italy not only failed to decriminalise libel, but its new coalition government gave its blessing to the use of judicial procedures to silence its critics,” it said.

The report quoted a 2022 Twitter post from Guido Crosetto a few days after he was named as defence minister in which he said “I am convinced that condemnations in civil and criminal procedures are the only method, in the face of defamation, that publishers, editors and journalists understand” in response to accusations of conflict of interest.

A case involving the newspaper Domani was referred by Crosetto to prosecutors, who have ordered it to reveal its source for articles alleging he had received payments from the arms industry. As a result, three journalists were placed under investigation. In response to questioning from the Guardian on the strategic use of defamation suits, Crosetto replied: “I have not sued the newspaper Domani or the journalists, but I have only asked the judiciary to verify how non-public and non-obtainable data were published. This is something different and more serious than defamation […] That being said, I also consider defamation very serious, and I believe that true journalism should be a bearer of truth, even uncomfortable truths, and not a megaphone for falsehoods or libel.”

Italy’s defence minister, Guido Crosetto. Photograph: Johanna Geron/Reuters

An open letter in support of Di Cesare launched by four British professors at Kingston University’s Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy in London has argued that cases such as hers were reminiscent of tactics used in “illiberal, hollowed-out democracies” to silence opponents.

“It is inconceivable that in a democratic country a minister should drag a philosopher to court over political-cultural and historical-philosophical issues, on which there instead ought to be a democratic debate,” the letter said.

“The exponents of a democratic government should respond to even harsh political criticism with words, not lawsuits,” Di Cesare said. “I am a pacifist and an anti-racist, but I am willing to debate it.”

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