What you need to know about press freedom in Italy

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.

What you need to know about press freedom in Italy
Front pages of Italian newspapers calling for the defense of press freedom. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

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.

“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

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

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.


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

In 2017, the latest available data from the National Statistics Institute (ISTAT) showed nearly 9,500 defamation proceedings were initiated against journalists in Italy for defamation through the media.

Sixty percent were dismissed, while 6.6 percent went to trial.

Italy’s Constitutional Court urged lawmakers in 2020 and 2021 to rewrite the law, saying jail time for such cases was unconstitutional and should only be resorted to in cases of “exceptional severity.”

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” to 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.

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Analysis: Why doesn’t Italian media look beyond the country’s borders?

Italy may be a fascinating place, but why isn't the country's media more interested in international stories and perspectives too? Silvia Marchetti explains.

A man reads Italian news headlines about domestic politics.
Where are the headlines on topics other than domestic politics? Photo: Filip Mishevski on Unsplash

Evening news in Italy is family time. After a day’s work people get together in front of the television to catch up with what’s going on – mainly in Italy.

It’s mostly all news on Italian politics, internal affairs, disputes within the government, a politician under investigation, or party propaganda and campaigns. 

I always put myself in the shoes of foregn residents who speak Italian, and feel bad for them. 

Talking to a few foreign friends in Rome, they confess that they find Italian news shows boring and provincial and are horrified that television channels barely talk about what is happening in the rest of the world.

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And yet Italians love television. According to national statistics agency Istat, 90% watch TV on a daily basis, while only 38% reads a newspaper at least once a week.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been focused on the Italian situation, which I perfectly understand given the death toll it has led to and the many challenges Italy has faced in the vaccination campaign.

But there was almost zero information on what the scenario was like in distant countries such as India, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates, Australia or India at the peak of the emergency, and how authorities were handling the crisis. Africa never made the news, except when desperate migrants landed on Italy’s southern coasts. 

The Italy-focused approach of Italian media predates the pandemic. Generally speaking there’s a poor offer of global news, international economics and geopolitics and this concerns both TV and print media.

Italy’s politicans and journalists become familiar faces on evening current affairs talk shows. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

I’d love to know how rural villages in deepest France or Spain are coping with Covid, or how New Zealand is tackling climate change, or the Maldives. How do people kill time in Iceland or Alaska, and how are African farmers living?

I’m yet to find one single channel or paper that fully looks outside the country. I’m not saying there should be an English-speaking Italian news program for foreigners living in the country – what a utopia! – but there should be more international news,at least.

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It would also be good to have a special television program with stories of interest to foreign residents and tourists, possibly with English subtitles.

The truth is, internal politics tends to dominate the Italian stage and this is reflected in the media. 

At dinner I often end up switching off the TV because I’m fed up of listening to ‘patchworks’ of colorful commentary and exaggerated reactions from politicians of different parties, who exploit the microphones to vent their anger at their rivals, or even at coalition allies. 

In Italian journalistic jargon these shows are quite fittingly described as ‘pastoni’ – aka, big platefuls of pasta with every possible (political) ingredient inside.

Global news usually comes at the end of TV news programs, I think mainly because producers know that audience shares tend to be higher at the start and then thin out, so they feed viewers with what’s appealing. 

According to studies, barely 15 percent of Italians seem to care about what’s happening in the rest of the world versus the 34 percent ‘very interested’ in internal politics. 

Half of the Italian population says it follows global news only a few times per year.

This is quite a pity because in our globalized, interconnected world I don’t think anyone can afford to be too ’local’. 

The worst Italian TV programs, mainly from an expat’s point of view, are the current affairs shows where newspaper editors of different political affiliations yell at each other, making a show of themselves. It’s like perverse little form of theatre.

To find a serious documentary that focuses a little more on non-Italian stuff you need to wait until midnight, and by that time most people who work have already gone to bed.

READ ALSO: Who needs to pay the Italian TV licence fee – and how to cancel it

Same goes for newspapers. Unless there’s a major global catastrophe or the US presidential elections, you just need to turn the pages of any paper to see how politics-centered the Italian media is.

The first ten pages are on internal affairs and political parties, government measures, budget issues and ruling allies bickering among themselves over key reforms. Written versions of ‘pastoni’ with statements are the norm. 

Then you’ll find some economic news, not too in-depth. And then the foreign affairs pages – usually no more than two.

Expats I know just refuse to buy Italian newspapers, and I can’t blame them. I have a hard time reading them too.

Italian media has always been a narcissistic reflection of politics; one strengthens and legitimizes the other. I guess it’s more or less the same in many other countries, but in Italy politics-centered information is stronger.

That’s mainly for two reasons. One: most Italians – not all – adore watching politicians and newspaper editors bicker. They take sides or make fun of them. It’s like a circus. 

Politicians speak, the media amplifies their messages, and citizens are the more or less involved, and influenced, spectators.

The second reason is that not only state TV but all major national and regional networks are in some way controlled or influenced by political parties, so each gets its visibility share depending on consensus.

Italy is a wonderful, multi-faceted country with so many things going on both at national and local level worth being covered, but not while neglecting the rest of the world. 

The Italian media should really start looking beyond its backyard. Many Italians I have spoken to would love to read or learn about non-domestic stories, to escape from their own everyday realities and to be able to relate to the outside world.