Italy lawyers slam ‘dangerous’ media blackout at trials

Rome (AFP)

Lawyers are sounding the alarm over the continued exclusion of the press from criminal hearings, despite the near total lifting of Italy’s coronavirus lockdown.

“Restrictions have been eased for planes, trains, even nightclubs, but not for the justice system,” lawyer Renato Borzone told AFP.

Lawyer Carlo della Vedova, who defended American Amanda Knox when she was tried for the murder of her British housemate, says Rome's criminal chamber is trying to find a solution
Lawyer Carlo della Vedova, who defended American Amanda Knox when she was tried for the murder of her British housemate, says Rome’s criminal chamber is trying to find a solution FABIO MUZZI AFP/File

“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.

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.

– Dangerous precedent –

Human rights lawyer Arturo Salerni, who made his name by taking on former far-right 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.

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