Nearly 200 Italian journalists received police protection in 2017
Last month’s attack on a RAI television reporter by a local mafia chief’s brother in Ostia, a coastal resort town near Rome, has revived concern about threats to journalists in Italy, especially in regions with the biggest mafia presence such as Campania, Calabria and Sicily, where they are exposed to harassment and violence on a daily basis.
No fewer than 196 Italian journalists received police protection this year. This alarmingly high figure was revealed by the interior minister in early December at the inauguration of a coordination centre for combatting acts of intimidation against journalists, a promise made after the attack on the RAI reporter.
The centre – the first of its kind in Europe, according to the Italian authorities – is intended to reinforce cooperation between the police and the Italian National Press Federation in order to provide better protection to journalists who feel threatened and at the same time better conditions for them to be able to continue to do investigative reporting.
Covering organized crime in Italy often exposes reporters to deadly danger. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has established that about ten Italian journalists currently have permanent, round-the-clock police bodyguards. RSF has talked to some of these journalists.
They include Paolo Borrometi, a news agency reporter specializing in the mafia who had to leave his native Sicily for security reasons in 2015 after a series of attacks and intimidation attempts. He now lives in Rome where he is always accompanied by several policemen and never goes to a meeting alone.
“I was subjected to physical attacks,” he said. “They tried to burn down my house. I received threats, including on social networks, but I never stopped reporting what was happening in my region.” He has been sentenced to death by three mafia families and, on 19 November, he published the recording of the latest death threat he has received, from the brother of a mafia boss.
Lirio Abbate, a journalist specializing in organized crime who is deputy editor of the weekly L’Espresso, displays the same determination. He has been getting police protection for longer than any other journalist in Italy and is still receiving threats. Abbate has had a police escort since 2007, the year that his book about the connections between politics and the mafia in Italy, entitled “I complici” (The Accomplices), was published.
“In Italy, there is a strong temptation to erase the facts,” he said. “So, it is the job of journalists to combat ignorance and fake news, so that public opinion is informed, as it deserves to be. This is a job that annoys certain criminals with networks in Sicily and Campania, with the result that Italy is the western country with the most media professionals killed in connection with their work.”
According to the figures compiled by Ossigeno per l'Informazione (Oxygen for Information), an Italian NGO, 11 journalists have been killed in Italy by criminal gangs or terrorists since 1960. Eight of these murders took place in Sicily. The Italy mafia is therefore the biggest perpetrator of murders of journalists in Europe.
Many journalists owe their survival to their police bodyguards and, although they acknowledge that it is hard to live with a constant escort, they usually pay tribute to their police protectors.
“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. “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.”
“In a democracy such as Italy in which the press is free, it is vital that journalists should also be able to investigate difficult subjects such as the mafia and that they should be able to do their reporting in the best possible conditions,” said Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF’s EU-Balkans desk.
“We urge the Italian authorities to redouble their efforts to enable journalists, especially the younger generation, to continue the work of their predecessors, some of whom paid with their lives for their investigative reporting.”
Combatting the mafia now a priority
The police have carried out several large-scale anti-mafia operations in recent weeks, including one on 5 December in Palermo in which raids were carried out against 25 members of the same mafia family in a single day.
In Ostia, where the filmed attack on RAI reporter Daniele Piervincenzi took place on 7 November, drug trafficking and protection rackets are shared by three crime families. “Three local mafia families have been laying down the law for too long in this seaside resort,” said Rosy Bindi, the head of the Italian parliament’s anti-mafia commission, after the attack.
Federica Angeli, a reporter for the daily newspaper La Reppublicca, is from Ostia. After she began exposing the details of the Spada family’s operations in Ostia and along the rest of the coast to the southwest of Rome, she was kidnapped by one of its members, Armando Spada, who threatened to kill her and her children.
“The mafiosi did everything possible to make me stop writing, but they failed,” she said last month at a demonstration in defence of media freedom. “Now we are all gathered here. At last there’s an ‘us’ behind me. I promised my children and I promise to you as well that my pen will always be at the service of Ostia and its well-being.”
Angeli has been getting full police protection for the past four years and still receives threats from the mafia. Nonetheless, like many of her colleagues, she has chosen to remain in her hometown and to keep living her (abnormal) life with her family while continuing to cover the mafia networks that control Ostia.
“The mafia has not won but it has not lost either,” justice minister Andrea Orlando said at the inauguration of an anti-mafia conference last month. At the end of this big event he publicly admitted that the situation was alarming.
The mafia has not won, but the filmed attack on a reporter has had the merit of turning the spotlight on a problem that has affected Italy for decades and which the authorities are now trying to address.
Italy is ranked 52nd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index, after falling dramatically in the 2015 index because of a number of threats and attacks that were not addressed.