The bullying of one of Italy’s most respected writers by Giorgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini is an assault on press freedom
Italy’s draconian defamation laws have long been exploited by the powerful to intimidate and silence troublesome voices. Each year, thousands of proceedings are launched against investigative journalists, and the country’s constitutional court has urged much-needed reform to protect freedom of expression and the independence of the press.
The outrageous bullying of Roberto Saviano, one of Italy’s best-known writers, illustrates why such action is long overdue. Mr Saviano has just gone on trial, and risks a prison sentence, having been accused of criminal defamation by Italy’s new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni. The case relates to comments made during a television show two years ago, when he condemned Ms Meloni’s campaign as an opposition leader to prevent NGO boats rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean. In an emotional response to footage of a grieving mother, whose baby had died when a migrant dinghy capsized, Mr Saviano described Ms Meloni and her ally on the radical right, Matteo Salvini, as “bastards”. Concurrently he faces separate defamation lawsuits brought by Mr Salvini, now deputy prime minister, and Gennaro Sangiuliano, the culture minister, both of which will come to court next year. Last week, Mr Salvini asked to be also included as a plaintiff in the case brought by Ms Meloni, which is due to resume next month.
The spectacle of Italy’s most powerful politicians ganging up to bully a writer in this way is one unworthy of a founder member state of the European Union. As the European court of human rights has noted, politicians should be expected to tolerate higher levels of criticism and scrutiny given their public position. The right to vociferous dissent on matters of public interest is an essential part of any functioning democracy. Ms Meloni’s lawyer has suggested that her lawsuit is justified because of the “hatred used” by Mr Saviano on the programme. Anyone familiar with the incendiary rhetoric deployed by Ms Meloni in relation to migration and other themes might be surprised at such a display of sensitivity on her part.
The impact of such vexatious claims, if allowed to stand, will be to further foster a climate of fear and self-censorship among editors and journalists in Italy. As the president of Pen International, Burhan Sonmez, observed in a statement of support for Mr Saviano: “Criminal defamation lawsuits exhaust their victims. They rob them of their time, of their money, of their vital energy.” Death threats following the 2006 publication of Gomorrah, Mr Saviano’s exposé of the Neapolitan mafia, have forced him into a life in hiding, and he requires a permanent police escort. In that context, it is unconscionable that Italy’s most senior politicians are happy to make him a high-profile legal target on such spurious grounds.
It appears Ms Meloni’s legal team may yet decide to withdraw the lawsuit before Mr Saviano’s trial resumes in December. Such a move was widely anticipated following her appointment as prime minister this autumn. It is disgraceful that last week’s hearing nevertheless went ahead. Ms Meloni and her allies tend to roll their eyes when liberal critics warn that Italy has taken a nasty authoritarian turn. The vindictive hounding of a respected journalist, who had the temerity to call her a “bastard”, rather seems to back that thesis up. Ms Meloni, Mr Salvini and Mr Sangiuliano should call off the dogs and allow Mr Saviano to work in peace.


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