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What you need to know about press freedom in Italy in 2019

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What you need to know about press freedom in Italy in 2019
Front pages of Italian newspapers calling for the defense of press freedom. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
16:36 CEST+02:00
Freedom of the press is not something you can take for granted in Italy. On World Press Freedom Day, The Local takes a look at the main issues affecting Italian media.

1. Italy has one of Europe's lowest press freedom rankings

…Although it has improved slightly. In 2019, Reports without Borders (RSF) ranked Italy as 43rd in its annual Press Freedom Index. It has climbed three places since 2018, continuing a trend of slow but steady improvement.

But this is still among the worst rankings in Europe, with only Romania, Poland, Greece and Hungary faring worse.

“Around twenty Italian journalists are currently receiving round-the-clock police protection because of serious threats or murder attempts by the mafia or by extremists groups,” RSF says.

Italian journalists protesting government attacks on press freedom in 2018. Photo: Federazione Nazionale della Stampa Italiana

“The level of violence against reporters is alarming and keeps on growing, especially in Campania, Calabria, Puglia and Sicily, as well as in Rome and the surrounding region,” it says.

Italy had the highest number of threats to journalists in Europe in 2018, when press freedom in Italy "clearly deterioriated", according to a report from the Council of Europe's Platform for the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists.

READ ALSO: The impact of 'fake news' on the Italian election

The report says Italy ranked as the EU member state with the highest number of active threats last year.

Globally, it ranks Italy among the countries with the highest number of alerts posted on the Platform in 2018 - the same as Russia, and more than three times the number registered in 2017.

2. The current government has a hostile approach to the media

The Council of Europe report found that the Italian government was largely to blame for poor press freedom in Italy.

It cited "hostile rhetoric" from government ministers as contributing the increased threat level, and stated that Italian authorities have not responded to any journalist safety alerts since June 2017.

The report said most of the alerts were recorded after the coalition government took office in June 2018.

READ ALSO: Protests across Italy over government attacks on press freedom

It said journalists' unions complained of a "constant risk of violence fuelled by the hostile rhetoric of members of the government and the ruling coalition parties."

The report singled out Deputy Premiers Luigi Di Maio, the M5S chief, and Matteo Salvini, the League leader, for criticism, saying they "regularly express through social media rhetoric particularly hostile to the media and journalists."

"Among other things, Deputy Prime Minister Salvini has threatened to remove police protection for investigative journalist Roberto Saviano, despite the known threats to his life from criminal organisations," the report said.

The two deputy prime ministers also provoked furious protests last year when they hurled insults at journalists, calling them “whores” and “jackals” over reporting on the corruption trial of Rome mayor Virginia Raggi, a Five Star Movement member.

3. Mafia intimidation is a real and serious problem

The mafia is one of the biggest threats to free media in Italy. Particularly in the south of the country, reporters have fallen victim to arson attacks, criminal damage to property, death threats and violence.

In 2014, Reporters Without Borders described violence towards journalists as “endemic in Italy and increasing steadily”, and today, twenty journalists live under round-the-clock police protection (up from ten this time last year.)

Gomorrah author Roberto Saviano. Photo: Christophe Simon/AFP

The most famous of these is Roberto Saviano, whose book Gomorrah examined the grip of the Camorra mafia group on Naples.

Others include veteran mafia journalist Sandro Rufolo, whose police protection was removed by Matteo Salvini’s Interior Ministry in early 2019 despite mafia bosses threatening to have the reporter “butchered alive”.

That's not to mention nearly 200 other journalists who receive some form of police protection in Italy.

READ ALSO:

4. Italian political parties have a strong influence over the media

Salvini and Di Maio caused an outcry when they nominated conspiracy theorist Marcello Foa as the new director of national broadcaster Rai. He was later appointed to the post by committee.

Foa, a longtime ally of Salvini, is also known to be a supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has publicly supported anti-vaccine theories, retweeted neo-fascists on Twitter and claimed that NGOs are operating an "immigration factory".

In general, "Italian journalists increasingly opt to censor themselves because of the pressure from politicians," says RSF.

Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who leads the Forza Italia party, is a media tycoon who in 2012 controlled around 90 percent of Italian broadcast media outlets, according to estimates from the European Federation of Journalists.

Silvio Berlusconi (L) and Matteo Salvini. Photo: AFP

He remains the controlling shareholder of Italy's largest commercial broadcaster, Mediaset.

In fact, most media outlets receive state funding or have longstanding ties to political parties, and what's more, the board of regulatory body Agcom is appointed by parliament.

5. Journalists can face harsh sentences for defamation

Some of Italy's harsh rules punishing defamation were actually introduced under Mussolini's regime. Fines can reach up to €20,000 and journalists found guilty can even face prison terms. 

The Vatileaks trials of 2016 provoked outrage among campaigners for press freedom, who argued that the Vatican City was attacking the media.

The acquittal of two journalists in that case – as well as several others in the same year – was seen as a victory for freedom of the media. Court rulings over the past few years have emphasized that prison terms should only be handed out in extreme circumstances.

6. Freedom of information isn't guaranteed

Until recently, journalists wishing to access information had to rely on various vague provisions under several different laws, as there was no universal Freedom of Information Act. The right to access administrative documents was introduced in 1990, but required a "legal interest", meaning it was often difficult for journalists to get information needed for investigative reporting.

Under Matteo Renzi’s government, the Freedom of Information Act came into force in December 2016. Renzi's administration also declassified some documents such as those relating to terrorist attacks, as well as creating a portal detailing where and how public funds were spent.

However, in December 2017 the next Democratic Party government passed a controversial law that forbids the publication of wiretapped conversations unless they're deemed "relevant" for a criminal trial.

Police must seal any "irrelevant" excerpts, however newsworthy they may be, as secret.

Journalists complained that the new law would hamper their ability to investigate and publish stories in the public interest.

READ ALSO: Two journalists attacked by far-right extremists in Rome

 

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