The case for media self-regulation is built around the notion that voluntary mediation is a better way to correct the errors of journalists than the use of law, particularly the criminal law.
A case in point has arisen in Italy where press freedom campaigners are protesting over suspended prison sentences given to journalist Orfeo Donatini and the former director of the newspaper Alto Adige, Tiziano Marson.
Both men were sentenced under the Italian penal code which still contains provisions for criminal defamation. In this regard Italy is in bad company; the only other European country that jails reporters for their journalism is the intolerant and autocratic regime in Belarus.
The prosecution followed a complaint from local politician Sven Knoll in the northern city of Bolzano who says he was defamed in an article which alleged attended a neo-Nazi summit.
Alto Adige thought it was on strong ground – the information had first appeared in the national weekly L’Espresso and also featured in a police report – but Knoll did not even contact the paper for a correction, he immediately filed a court action.
As a result, Donatini and Marson were convicted, sentenced to a suspended four months jail term and ordered to pay 15,000 Euros compensation.
Press freedom campaigners are now calling for the Italian Parliament to take defamation out of the penal code. They say Italy’s archaic legal regime is out of step with free expression principles in Europe.
However, the case also highlights how Italian journalism needs to strengthen its own systems of self-regulation to dissuade people, particularly politicians, from seeking redress in the courts.
There is no national media self-regulatory body other than the Ordine de Giornalisti, a professional association set up by law in 1963 but which has its roots in a similar organization created in 1928 by the government of dictator and sometime journalist Benito Mussolini.
The Ordine regulates access to journalism and claims to be an ethical watchdog but it has an unconvincing record, and many in journalism and the wider media community argue that it needs to change.
Meanwhile, much of the role of professional protection falls to the Italian journalists’ union, the FNSI, which has pioneered ethical standards in media, particularly to combat discrimination.
Journalists and media owners have worked together recent years to strengthen ethical standards including the launch of a ground-breaking joint code against racism, the Charter of Rome, in 2007.
The case in Bolzano suggests that similar co-operation to introduce a more credible and sustainable form of self-regulation should be on the media agenda.
Systems of fast-track mediation to correct errors and provide suitable remedies for people who have been wronged not only keep media honest, they keep journalists out of court whether civil or criminal.