(Jemimah Steinfeld on New Statesman) Italy’s new populist government is threatening to take away police protection from investigative journalists.

He had spoken about it before becoming Italy’s interior minister. Now, not even a month into the role, Matteo Salvini has threatened to remove the police protection for one of the country’s most famous journalists, Roberto Saviano. In an interview on national broadcaster Rai Tre on Thursday morning, Salvini said it was time to review spending on Saviano’s police escort as part of an evaluation of how “Italians spend their money”, thus following through on a specific pledge he made as part of the election campaign.

Saviano has received 24-hour police protection for more than a decade following the release of his book Gomorrah, published in 2006, which looked at the Neapolitan mafia. A best-selling writer and media personality, he is also one of Salvini’s toughest critics.

Other investigative journalists who receive 24-hour protection after having written exposés of mafia corruption and receiving death threats are also worried about their future security.

In the 2018 summer issue of the Index on Censorship‘s magazine, Federica Angeli, herself a journalist living under 24-hour police protection after exposing mafia links in the resort town of Ostia, near Rome, says: “In Italy, people have got used to the fact that journalists need police protection.”

In 2017, it was reported that 196 journalists have received protection, with approximately ten reporters having it for 24 hours a day.

Angeli expressed concern that Italy’s current political situation would leave her and other journalists further isolated and exposed.

The threat against Saviano from Salvini comes at a precarious moment for journalists in Italy. Reporters Without Borders warned this year that the level of violence against reporters is “alarming and keeps growing”. On Index’s Mapping Media Freedom (MMF) site, which tracks media violations against journalists across Europe, 32 incidents were documented in 2017 in Italy. This year, 24 have already been recorded. These incidents are often very violent, even if not resulting in death. Last November, Rai reporter Daniele Piervincenzi had his nose broken after a man with links to the mafia head-butted him. As a result of these attacks, a coordination centre for combatting acts of intimidation against journalists opened in December, the first of its kind in Europe, according to Italian authorities.

All of this makes Salvini’s words all the more worrying. The new government’s attitude towards the media provides little hope that the violence will be addressed, and if anything suggests matters might worsen. Indeed, Salvini is not the only one in the government to hold journalists in low regard. The ruling party in the coalition, the Five Star Movement (M5S), has been vocal in its criticism of the media. Beppe Grillo, who established the movement in 2009, set up a column known as “Journalist of the Day” on his popular blog, in which he singled out articles and journalists who were critical of M5S.

“My fear is that the threats of these political groups could lead to substantial worsening of our freedom,” says Angeli. She herself has been kidnapped. The acts of violence and intimidation against her include flammable substances thrown through the window of her apartment.

Unless the causes of the violence against journalists are addressed, removing police protection will have devastating effects on the practice of journalism in Italy. Many journalists are more than willing to acknowledge they owe their lives to such protection.

Lirio Abbate, who specialises in organised crime and is deputy editor of the weekly news magazine L’Espresso, has been receiving protection since 2007.

“The protection provided by the national police saved me from a bomb left outside my house in Palermo and from an attack by armed criminals in Rome, and also resulted in the arrest of one of these hired killers, but the threats still continue today,” Abbate said in 2017.

“The presence of the police officers protecting me does not prevent me from continuing to work in the field and, thanks to them, I can continue to reaffirm the importance of investigative journalism every day.”

Indeed, taking away this crucial lifeline would have a crippling effect on the industry. Already journalists are quitting out of fear for their lives. Last month MMF reported on Salvatore Sparavigna, a local journalist, who announced he was going to quit the profession after finding a handwritten death threat in his mailbox. The unsigned note reads: “You will end up like Siani”, in reference to Giancarlo Siani, a reporter famous for his investigations on the Camorra crime syndicate, who was brutally murdered in 1985. On Facebook, Sparavigna wrote: “In the light of the huge indifference and of the lack of support received by everyone, I have decided to give up and dedicate my time to something else. One thing is certain: they have won.”

Yet this is not just an issue that concerns journalists. Angeli tells Index that the violence she experiences extend to many others. People in Ostia have approached her and revealed that the clans demand protection money and threaten local businesses.

She says: “You realise that something is not right when you see that these people are turning to you for help. It should be the state who should protect them. What can I guarantee them?”

And what can the state now guarantee Italian journalists? Life as an Italian investigative reporter is looking even more dangerous than before.

Jemimah Steinfeld is deputy editor for the quarterly magazine Index on Censorship. The latest issue Trouble in Paradise reports on freedoms under threat in holiday hotspots.


Featured image by Getty image via New Statesman

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