Italian Mafia Intimidating Journalists With Worst Levels of Violence Since 90s

Mafia in Italy
Italian writer Roberto Saviano is a symbol of the fight against the mafia since his best-selling book "Gomorra" exposed how the mob dominates life around Naples. The 29-year old has received death threats and lives under police escort. Alessandro Garofalo/REUTERS

The Italian mafia are “back in business” and silencing the country’s journalists with a vigor last seen in the 1990s, according to Antoine Héry, the head of the World Press Freedom Index, part of the non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders (RWB).

A total of 43 cases of physical aggression and seven cases of arson attacks on journalists’ homes and cars were reported during the first 10 months of 2014 according to figures provided by Ossigeno per l’Informazione, an Italian NGO that monitors freedom of information.

Héry believes that Italy’s problem with the mafia is “increasing in intensity,” particularly in the north and south of the country where he says the growing number of attacks could be a sign of the mafia “starting to threaten journalists again as they did in the 90s, a time in which it was very violent to stand against them”.

The country ranked 73rd in the 180 country index on global freedom of expression in 2014 conducted by Reporters Without Borders, falling 24 places from 49th in 2013. The index cited an increase in mafia activity as well as defamation lawsuits as the reasons for the drop.   

The RWB website catalogs many of the attacks and threats made towards media. One story describes how in December 2014  investigative journalist Guiseppe ‘Pino’ Maniaci found his two dogs hanged, just days after his car was torched - allegedly by the Sicilian mafia. Maniaci runs an anti-mafia TV station Telejato and is described as an “information hero” by RWB.

Another example is that of Federica Angeli, a journalist who works at the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica. Angeli was put under police protection in 2013 after receiving death threats for investigating the organized crime families of Ostia, Rome. In November 2014 Angeli’s children were sent death threats via their mother’s Facebook page.

The index indicated that as well as the increase in mafia violence, defamation lawsuits are also to blame for the lack of journalistic freedom in Italy. “When a journalist knows that they could face a lawsuit between  €5,000 and €60,000, they may have more of a tendency to self-censor,” Héry says. He added that although defamation lawsuits are brought against the media in other EU countries, the increasing number of those carried out in Italy means that the problem for journalists in the country is much worse.

“Certainly the press is not as free in Italy as it is in England. You’re really worried about what you write,”  Nick Farrell, a journalist living in Italy says. However, he argues that both the mafia and defamation laws have been causing problems for journalists in the country for a long time, rather than being new issues.

The number of defamation lawsuits rose drastically in 2014 - from 84 in 2013 to 129 in 2014, most of which Héry says were filed by elected public figures like Pasquale Scavone, the mayor of the city of Tito who sued the website Basilicata24 in April after it posted a video about the dangers of the city’s drinking water. “The urgency is now critical”, Héry warns.

“We are all waiting for the legal reform, but for now the problem remains,” he said, adding that the solution regarding abuse lies with the state. “Justice should be done, and there should be a proper investigation led by the police each time a journalist is threatened.”

Italy’s ranking was the lowest is has been since being included on the index in 2002, falling below Hati (53rd) and Georgia (69th) and Senegal (71st).