Italian judiciary killing free speech

It is a rare occurrence to witness the judiciary impinging the right to free speech but that is what has happened in Italy this week.

In a move that has caused shock and outrage, a Judge has found six scientists and one administrator guilty of manslaughter and sentenced them to six years’ jail each. Their ‘crime’ was to mislead the public about the risk of an earthquake.

The court case arose after a major earthquake in April 2009 killed 309 people in and around the city of L’Aquila.

The sting in the tale is that the scientists were not charged with failing to predict the quake but failing to adequately warn the public about the risk of a potentially deadly series of tremors.

The seven ‘criminals’ took part in a meeting of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks six days before the tragedy. When the meeting closed, media were advised that residents had nothing to fear and could even relax with a glass of wine.

The issue everyone else now has to worry about is the precedent for how experts and officials in future manage their forecasts. One of the substantial risks, of course, is that some learned folk will keep their mouths shut. Why say anything if you risk being convicted as a criminal if things go wrong?

Whereas the Italians were trying not to cause unnecessary panic and erred on the side of caution, how many more deaths will there be in future if scientists, academics and others opt for personal protection and maintain a vow of silence? We could hardly blame them.

Many will decide that, had commonsense prevailed instead of one judge’s hard-nosed and inflexible sense of justice, the offenders might have had their wrists slapped very firmly through a series of critical findings of their actions. Such an educative approach, rather than a punitive one, might foster debate and create awareness that could actually save lives in the future.

Fortunately, the jail terms imposed have to be confirmed at two higher levels before taking effect so there remains a chance that rationality may yet prevail.

Otherwise, we will find knowledgeable people refusing to share their wisdom with the masses for fear of prosecution. That would be a sad outcome for us all.


Acknowledgement: James Bone, The Times