‘Dangerous precedent’: Italy’s lawyers warn of media blackouts at trials

Lawyers are sounding the alarm over the continued exclusion of the press from criminal hearings in Italy, despite the near-total lifting of other coronavirus lockdown rules.

'Dangerous precedent': Italy's lawyers warn of media blackouts at trials
The inscription "Justice" written in Latin is pictured on the facade of a courthouse in Lombardy. Photo: AFP
“Restrictions have been eased for planes, trains, even nightclubs, but not for the justice system,” lawyer Renato Borzone told AFP.
“Yet press access is one of those constitutional rights that cannot be surrendered, even in a state of emergency,” said Borzone, part of the defence team for one of two US students currently on trial in Rome over the death of a policeman.
It is particularly crucial to have press access to cases like his – in which the defence has accused the police of lying – to ensure those who administer justice are held to account, he said.
While all trials were temporarily halted as the pandemic gripped Italy at the start of March, criminal trials with defendants being held in jail were allowed to resume mid-April – but only behind closed doors.
Journalists outside a restricted entrance of the criminal court of Rome on February 26, 2020, during the trial of two Americans accused of killing a police officer in Rome last year. Photo: AFP
An emergency government decree stated hearings could go ahead without the public or media present. In practice it is up to the judges sitting on a particular case to decide who is allowed into court.
That means many cases are off limits to all, with judges insisting the risk of contagion is still too high to allow journalists in.
Human rights lawyer Arturo Salerni, who made his name by taking on far-right former interior minister Matteo Salvini over his decree closing ports to migrant rescue vessels, said banning the media from courts sets a dangerous precedent.
“It's clear that it could be done in an extreme emergency, but it seems clear to me that we are beyond that,” he said.
“In a democracy, trials are public. If you make an exception to the rule, and that exception is extended beyond the period it was strictly necessary – in this case March and April – it's clear the democratic nature of our trials is in danger.”
Salerni said he did not think the situation would return to normal until September, despite all trials resuming in July.
Rome's criminal chamber is “making a series of proposals in an attempt to find a solution,” said lawyer Carlo della Vedova, who defended the American Amanda Knox when she was tried for the murder of her British housemate in Perugia.
Their task was no easy one however, as it was not clear how to interpret the rules in the last government decree, he said.
The stop to trials had caused a “disastrous” backlog, he said, and risked dealing a severe blow to justice because the clock was still ticking on the statute of limitations for prosecuting crimes.
'Total anarchy'
“It's total anarchy, as can only happen in Italy,” said Borzone, whose request last week for the US students' trial to be reopened to the media was rejected.
Under the UN human rights act, states can derogate from their obligations in time of public emergency – but not from a series of essential rights, such as the right to freedom of thought.
And under the Italian constitution, right to freedom of thought means “the press may not be subjected to any authorisation or censorship”.
Excluding the press “seems a particularly grave move, particularly by the very people who are supposed to guarantee the law and rights,” Borzone said.
Should the feared second wave of the pandemic hit, how long would the media be shut out?
“Continuing to prevent the press from accessing information or working freely because of Covid-19 would be worthy of a dictatorial regime,” he said.


Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Sicilian mafia boss Messina Denaro dies after long illness

The notorious mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro, captured in January after three decades on the run, has died in hospital in central Italy.

Sicilian mafia boss Messina Denaro dies after long illness

Matteo Messina Denaro, known as the ‘last godfather’ of the Cosa Nostra mafia and accused of a long series of heinous crimes, died in the early hours of Monday, Italian news agency Ansa announced overnight.

The 61-year-old had colon cancer, for which he had sought treatment while on the run – a decision that reportedly brought him to the attention of the authorities, who arrested him at a clinic in Palermo.

Messina Denaro was one of the most ruthless bosses in Cosa Nostra, the real-life Sicilian crime syndicate depicted in the Godfather movies.

He was convicted by the courts of involvement in the murder of anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone in 1992 and in deadly bombings in Rome, Florence and Milan in 1993.

One of his six life sentences was also handed down for the kidnapping and subsequent murder of the 12-year-old son of a witness in the Falcone case.

Messina Denaro disappeared in the summer of 1993, and spent the next 30 years on the run as the Italian state cracked down on the Sicilian mob.

READ ALSO: Messina Denaro: How Italy caught ‘most wanted’ mafia boss after 30 years

But he remained the top name on Italy’s most-wanted list and, increasingly became a figure of legend.

He was arrested on January 16th as he visited a health clinic where he was being treated using a fake identity.

Mafia boss hideout in Sicily

Police officers prevent access to mafia boss Messina Denaro’s hideout in Campobello di Mazara, Sicily. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP)

He was detained in a high-security jail in L’Aquila, central Italy, where he continued treatment for his cancer in his cell.

In August, Messina Denaro was moved to the inmates’ ward of the local hospital, where his condition had declined in recent days.

This weekend, media reports said he was in an “irreversible coma”. Medics had stopped feeding him and he had asked not to be resuscitated, they added.

His arrest may have brought some relief for his victims, but the mob boss always maintained his silence.

In interviews in custody since being arrested, Messina Denaro even denied he was a member of the Cosa Nostra.


After Messina Denaro went on the run, there was intense speculation that he had gone abroad – and he likely did.

But in the end, he was found to have been staying near his hometown of Castelvetrano in western Sicily.

READ ALSO: Police arrest dozens in major raid on Italy’s youngest mafia

Preparations are already under way for his burial in the family tomb in the town, alongside his father, Don Ciccio, according to the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

Don Ciccio was also head of the local clan. He was said to have died of a heart attack while on the run, his body left in the countryside, dressed for the funeral.

Investigators had been combing the Sicilian countryside for Messina Denaro for years, searching for hideouts and wiretapping members of his family and his friends.

They were heard discussing the medical problems of an unnamed person who suffered from cancer, as well as eye problems – a person who detectives became sure was Messina Denaro.

They used a national health system database to search for male patients of the right age and medical history, and eventually closed in.