Hundreds of journalists protested in cities across Italy, calling for press freedom to be respected after populist Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio launched a barrage of slurs at the media, calling reporters “jackals” and threatening to implement new laws to control the press.
Di Maio, leader of the Five Star Movement (M5S), and Alessandro Di Battista, a prominent M5S politician, hurled insults at the Italian press over coverage of M5S Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi's corruption trial after she was acquitted on Saturday.
The insults sparked anger from Italian journalists’ unions FNSI and Usigrai, which organised the flash mobs to take place in 60 Italian towns and cities, as well as in London and Brussels.
Journalists, some carrying pictures of jackals, demonstrated in Rome, Genoa, Milan, Florence and Perugia under the slogan “Hands off the press”.
“We do not accept that someone gives us a line to follow, that we are told what to write or not to write,” said Lazzaro Papagallo, President of Rome's Press Association.
— Barbie Latza Nadeau (@BLNadeau) November 13, 2018
FNSI General Secretary Raffaele Lorusso said the protests were about “rejecting all crude and unacceptable attacks against information and journalists.”
He said such attacks from authorities were “no longer isolated incidents.”
“We’re facing organised actions to discredit professional journalists, aimed at disorienting public opinion,” he said.
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Anna del Freo, Italian member of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) steering committee, said the issue was “of unprecedented seriousness in the history of the post-war period.”
“Di Maio, after the insults, has even threatened to push big state companies not to advertise in newspapers that criticise the government,” she added.
“Di Maio and his government cannot stand criticism.”
— FNSI (@FnsiSocial) November 13, 2018
Journalists’ unions across Europe condemned the Italian ministers’ conduct and said the incident highlighted the wider threat to press freedom from governments across the continent.
“More and more leading European political figures demonise the media,” said EFJ President Mogens Blicher Bjerregård.
“Their willingness to smear journalists, rather than debate the facts, is one of the major threats to media freedom in Europe.”
Meanwhile, the president of Italy's National Order of Journalists, Carlo Verna, pointed out that Di Maio was “insulting himself” since he was registered with them as a journalist.
“I ask him to seriously consider the possibility of leaving our community, in which he has the right to stay, but in which if he behaves like that he is not completely welcome,” said Verna.
Di Maio continued to attack the press today in a Facebook Live video, in which he said “Freedom of press and information is sacred to us” but it “cannot be the freedom to lie, or to offend.”
“If there is the freedom to tell lies, a person like me must have the opportunity to defend himself,” Di Maio said.
M5S, which built most of its support online, has been accused of spreading misinformation via unofficial social media accounts.
The movement has also threatened to cut funding for media and said it will introduce legislation to crack down on so-called 'impure media owners', apparently referring to publishing groups with alleged conflicts of interest.
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