The longstanding enmity between one of Italy's most prominent thinkers and the head of the hard-right League party took a sinister turn this week when Matteo Salvini, interior minister and deputy prime minister since the beginning of June, repeated a call made before he came to power for Saviano's long-running police escort to be reassessed.
"The competent authorities will judge whether he is at risk, because it seems to me that he spends a lot of time abroad ... It's only right that Italians check how their money's being spent," Salvini told a TV interviewer on Thursday.
Saviano, who has been under police protection for over a decade since the publication of Gomorrah in 2006, accused the interior minister of making mafia-style threats.
"I've been threatened by Neapolitan mafia clans, by Mexican drug traffickers ... Do you really think I'd be afraid of you?" Saviano said in a video addressed directly to Salvini.
His defiance was echoed by social media users, who posted their support under the hashtag #savianononsitocca ("hands off Saviano"). Many revere the author for his investigations into organized crime in Italy's impoverished south, which have been adapted for cinema, TV and theatre.
Our democracy and freedom of expression are still upheld also thanks to people like @robertosaviano who has risked his life to fight the mafia and now receives threats by @matteosalvinimi, a minister acting like a mafioso - unacceptable!! #hesnotmyminister #savianononsitocca— Eleonora Mazzoli (@EllieMazzo) June 22, 2018
The interior minister's remarks drew rebukes from his critics in politics, too, with opponents on the left rushing to condemn what they called an abuse of power. Salvini's predecessor, Marco Minniti of the centre-left Democratic Party, commented: "You don't assign or withdraw police escorts on TV", while the party's whip, Graziano Delrio, said he'd rather lose his own protection than see Saviano's taken away.
Meanwhile Salvini's allies in government, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) that won much of its support in the south of Italy, avoided criticizing him directly. "Everyone is free to say what they like in their free time," said M5S leader and joint deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio, while Speaker of the Lower House Roberto Fico, another of the party's most prominent members, said that all those who brave enough to oppose the mafia deserved protection, without mentioning Saviano by name.
Salvini won praise from the neofascist party Forza Nuova, however, whose leader tweeted that Saviano shouldn't receive protection "to defend politically correct nonsense from a loft in New York".
The interior minister clarified later on Thursday that decisions on police escorts were not up to him and would be made by the relevant authorities.
L'Italia è il Paese occidentale con più giornalisti sotto scorta perché ha le organizzazioni criminali più potenti del mondo, ma Matteo Salvini, ministro degli Interni, invece di contrastare le mafie, minaccia di ridurre al silenzio chi le racconta. #MinistrodellaMalavita pic.twitter.com/LRaHobx8c6— Roberto Saviano (@robertosaviano) June 21, 2018
Dubbing Salvini "il ministro della malavita" – "the minister of the underworld", a phrase borrowed from early 20th-century anti-fascist Gaetano Salvemini – Saviano said he had witnessed members of some of southern Italy's most notorious mafia families attending Salvini's rallies, and accused Salvini of ignoring organized crime's stranglehold on the south in favour of stirring up resentment against immigrants.
Salvini, whose party began as a northern separatist movement campaigning to 'free' Italy's wealthy north from the supposedly lazy south, is an "enemy" of southerners, said Naples-born Saviano.
"I am not scared by a fool who was afraid even of travelling too far south in Italy until a few years ago," he added in comments published by The Guardian, saying that he was proud to count himself among the people Salvini had singled out for attack, including immigrants and Roma people.
"If Matteo Salvini wants to vent his worst impulses against me and the immigrants, anyone who thinks they are safe is wrong. Yesterday it was the immigrants, today it's me and tomorrow, it'll be you," he told the Corriere della Sera.
Throughout Salvini's rise to power, Saviano has proved one of his most persistent critics and, with over a million social media followers as well as frequent media appearances in Italy and abroad, one of the most heard. The author regularly denounces organized crime, corruption and intolerance in Italy to a vast international audience.
In another sign that his critiques are rattling the League, the party's city councillors in Turin this week submitted a motion to strip Saviano of his honorary citizenship of the city, awarded in 2008 in recognition for his efforts to expose organized crime.
He is the best known of nearly 200 journalists in Italy who live under some form of police protection.
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Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP