Italy: UN agency allegations may lead to shutdown of newspaper and jail time for editor-in-chief 

By Emil Weber

An on-going trial in Rome, following criminal charges initiated by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and four of its officials against Italian Insider, may lead to the closure of Italy’s oldest English language newspaper and jail time for its editor-in-chief.

The Italian Insider The Italian Insider is considered the oldest English speaking newspaper in Italy (photo: screenshot)

Since 2013, the newspaper ran several stories dealing with cases of potential nepotism, corruption and a strained work atmosphere at FAO, as well as questionable behaviour by personnel outside the organisation. 

The trial which started in June 2018, was brought forward by charges from director José Graziano da Silva on behalf of FAO and four other officials of the same UN agency with headquarters in Rome.

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), as a consequence of those charges, the editor-in-chief of Italian Insider, John Philips, could be sentenced with up to three years in prison and ordered to pay more than 100,000 euros in damage compensations which “neither he nor the newspaper would be able to pay”. RSF has called the proceedings “disproportionate” and “with the clear aim of getting [the] newspaper shut down”.

FAO’s Office for Corporate Communications says, the “decision to file the lawsuit was made due to reiterated and systematic attacks of a defamatory nature made against FAO and its officials,” a spokesperson told the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF). “The organisation felt duty-bound to institute the legal proceedings amid numerous stories that aimed to undermine the value of FAO’s mission, its reputation and its integrity [...] FAO has acted in a way that is fully consistent with the principles enshrined in Article 10 of the EU Convention [freedom of expression]”.

"An attempt to silence us"

Editor-in-chief John Phillips says, that the Italian Insider stands by all its stories. “We always carefully check any information that we receive from whistleblowers, and we guarantee that we will protect our sources when they speak on the condition of anonymity”, Phillips tells the ECPMF. He adds, the newspaper is held in “high regard” by journalists as its stories have been referenced to by prestigious international media such as The Guardian and The Economist as well as mainstream Italian media.  

“The attempt to silence the Italian Insider by the Food and Agriculture Organisation Director General, José Graziano da Silva, underlines how seriously the FAO management objects to media scrutiny, and how much they evidently have to hide”, Phillips says. “The heads of UN specialised agencies such as the FAO are effectively laws unto themselves, spending vast budgets with little or no outside control”.

“Mr Graziano da Silva clearly hoped to intimidate the Italian Insider by bringing the case against us together with those of four other FAO executives but we have continued our work covering questionable policies in all the UN food agencies in Rome. Thanks to support from organisations such as the ECPMF we are confident that we will be able to carry on reporting”.

Also, he says, it is “highly unusual for a UN agency to use a local jurisdiction for suing a newspaper for critical reporting” and questioned the fact that the UN officials have not renounced their immunity while suing the newspaper. “According to experts we consulted, [the charges are] also against the UN Charter, which pledges to defend press freedom”, Phillips says.

“Italy's criminal libel law is dating back to the Fascist era”

ECPMF’s partner Ossigenio per Informazione says that in Italy defamation remains a crime subjected to a “high level of sanctions” since the enactment of penal code in 1930 and a press law in 1948. According to Ossigeno, despite attempts since 2001, the Parliament has been unable to amend the “libel law in force for the last 70 years”.

In absence of such amendments, Ossigeno says, that in the period of 2013 to 2017 alone, “Italian courts sentenced 155 people [mostly journalists] to jail time for libel every year” Ossigeno adds, that during the same period “Italian courts were dealing with 29,520 penal charges on defamation”.

“Italy’s criminal libel law is anachronistic, dating back to the Fascist era”, John Phillips of Italian Insider says. “It is to be hoped for that the new government may pick up the baton to end this for a Western democracy lamentable state of affairs. But so far there is no sign that this will be a priority”.

“Our problems with the FAO seeking to silence us are easy to deal with compared to our Italian colleagues facing death threats from the Mafia and other organised crime”, he adds. “We consider it an honour to work together with such colleagues, a number of whom have paid with their lives, to try and strive for a more open society in Italy and the Mediterranean, as well as within the United Nations”.

The ECPMF has provided 1,500 euros in support of John Phillips’ legal defence.

In the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index Italy ranks 46th among 180 countries.

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Source information: This article was originally published by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom –