‘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.


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Tourist fined €450 for swim in Rome’s Trevi Fountain

With the return of tourism and scorching temperatures, Rome’s fountains are once again attracting visitors hoping to cool off with a midnight swim.

Tourist fined €450 for swim in Rome's Trevi Fountain

In the latest incident, a 26-year-old Spanish man was fined 450 euros after taking a dip in the Trevi Fountain in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Rome’s city police apprehended and fined the man after he was spotted swimming in the 18th-century monument at around 5am, according to local media reports.

READ ALSO: How to keep cool like an Ancient Roman in Italy’s summer heat

Every summer, hapless foreign visitors face fines of hundreds of euros after falling foul of Rome’s strict ban on taking a dip in public fountains – with the city mayor warning tourists that the centuries-old Baroque monuments are “not swimming pools”.

In April, two Dutch tourists also faced fines totalling over €1,000 after their own ill-advised splash in the Trevi Fountain.

The Roman landmark is one of the city’s main magnets for badly-behaved visitors, but tourists have also been fined after cooling off in the Santa Maria fountain in Trastevere, believed to be the city’s oldest. 

Since 2018, anyone caught misbehaving at Rome’s monuments can also face a temporary ‘Daspo’ ban from the area – similar to an ASBO (anti-social behaviour order) in the UK – which allows city police to restrict the movement of people they deem a threat to public order.

READ ALSO: From selfie brawls to midnight swims: Tourists behaving badly at the Trevi Fountain

But a plan to erect a one-metre-high glass and steel barrier around the Trevi fountain to protect it from unruly visitors now appears to have been abandoned after arts and heritage experts called the idea “foolish”.

Fines for swimming in the fountains have been in place since 2015, but this hasn’t stopped determined visitors from recreating scenes from La Dolce Vita and even some locals from taking a dip – – with or without their clothes.

Swimming in the wrong place is just one of the offences regularly committed by visitors, with graffiti and vandalism a common problem at many of Italy’s famous monuments.

READ ALSO: 15 strange ways to get into trouble on holiday in Italy

In Rome alone, this year tourists have made headlines for everything from breaking into the Colosseum to enjoy a drink with a view to driving a car down the Spanish Steps.

Other Italian tourism hotspots, including Florence and Venice, also have varying local rules in place aimed at curbing rowdy behaviour.