December 15, 2014 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Increase in attacks and threats against Italian journalists

With the help of Ossigeno per l’Informazione, an Italian NGO that monitors freedom of information, Reporters Without Borders has produced this overview of the disturbing decline in the situation of journalists in Italy in 2014, a year marked by threats, physical attacks, torched cars and defamation suits.

In one of the latest examples of intimidation by the Sicilian mafia, Reporters Without Borders “information hero” Giuseppe “Pino” Maniaci, an investigative journalist who heads the Sicilian TV station Telejato, found his two dogs hanged on 3 December, just days after his car was torched.

The car in which another Reporters Without Borders “information hero”, journalist Lirio Abbate, was driving with his police bodyguards, was chased and rammed by another car on 11 November. Abbate, who writes about the mafia, has been under police protection since 2007.

As a result of the violence against journalists, which is endemic in Italy and increasing steadily, journalists are often given police protection. Ossigeno per l’Informazione reports that there were 421 threats against journalists in 2014, a 10 percent increase on 2013.

Frequent attacks on journalists

Ossigeno per l’Informazione registered 38 physical attacks on journalists this year, a high number similar to last year’s 34 and much more than the 22 cases registered in 2011. Journalists often encountered hostility from the public when out reporting and were sometimes the victims of very violent attacks if they failed to comply with requests to leave.

In one case, several individuals [accosted, insulted and slapped PuntoTV cameraman Vito Schiraldi in Molfetta, in Bari province, on 13 March. When Carmen Carbonara of Corriere del Mezzogiorno took photos with her mobile phone, several women grabbed her by hair and stole her phone.

A crew from the satirical TV show Striscia La Notizia was attacked by about ten individuals while filming near Rome’s Termini railway station on 23 October. The assailants hit reporter Jimmy Ghione and two of his colleagues, smashed their phones and camera, and stole their car keys.

Telereggio reporter Ines Conradi was filming the scene of a car accident on 19 October when the crash victim’s relatives told her to leave. After she failed to comply, they hit her, knifed her and threatened to kill her. There were other cases pointing to a disturbing increase in the readiness of a section of the public to resort to violence against media personnel.

Cases of deliberate damage to journalists’ equipment have doubled in the past year. Personal cars are often targeted. It is an easy way to intimidate journalists and those responsible are rarely caught. It is often used against reporters investigating organized crime.

In 2014, Ossigeno per l’Informazione registered six cases of journalists’ cars being torched and nine cases of cars that were vandalized – tyres slashed or paintwork scratched. In some cases, the cars of family members were targeted.

The car of Guido Scarpino, a journalist with the daily Il Garantista, was torched on the night of 17 June in Paola, in Cosenza province, a stronghold of the ‘Ndrangheta, which is on the Reporters Without Borders list of “Predators of Press Freedom.” The police found traces of a flammable liquid in the gutted car, thereby confirming that it was arson. Giuseppe Soluri, the head of the Calabrian journalists’ association, called it a “grave act of intimidation.

The car of Luca Urgu, a reporter for the Sardinian newspaper L’Unione Sarda, was torched near his home on 23 May, at a time when he was investigating a story about crime and the judicial system in the city of Nuoro.

Reporter Antonello Sagheddu’s car was set alight outside his home on 31 October. Police found traces of a flammable liquid on one of the tyres. Sagheddu’s blog provides coverage of such sensitive subjects as wasteful public spending.

Death threats, families targeted

As well as physical violence and acts of intimidation, there has also been a worrying increase in threats, especially in certain parts of the country. The threats are usually made in letters or take the form of objects that symbolize death.

Giusi Cavallo, the editor of the online newspaper Basilicata24, found crosses scratched into her car’s bodywork in January, while one of her journalists, Eugenio Bonanata, found the photo of a cross slipped under the door of the newspaper’s offices.

Giuseppe Bianco and Domenico Rubio, two journalists based in Naples province, received a letter threatening them with death on 26 May, after previously receiving letters containing bullets. On 27 May, La Repubblica’s Enrico Bellavia received a threatening letter, postmarked in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, that advised him to stop publication of the book he had written about mafia leader Francesco Di Carlo.

According to Ossigeno per l’Informazione, in 2014 there were nine times as many acts of intimidation against journalists in Basilicate, a small southern region with barely half a million inhabitants, as there were in the rest of Italy combined. About 7% of Basilicate’s journalists were the targets of intimidation attempts. Calabria was a distant second, while the fewest cases were reported in the northern region of Lombardy.

Sometimes families are targeted. La Stampa reporter Massimo Numa received an email on 7 January with an attached video consisting of clips of him and his wife going about their daily lives during the previous two years. It showed they had repeatedly been followed and watched.

In another shocking example, the children of Federica Angeli, a journalist who receives police protection, were the targets of death threats posted on Facebook in November 2014.

Frequent lawsuits

Just as violence is increasingly used in an attempt to gag media personnel, the past few years have also seen a rise in abusive defamation suits – especially by politicians and other public figures – with the aim of putting pressure on journalists and censuring their reporting. From 84 in 2013, the number of such cases rose to 129 in 2014.

Pasquale Scavone, the mayor of the city of Tito, sued Basilicata24 in April for posting a video about the dangers of the city’s drinking water. The mayor of Padua sued Il Fatto Quotidiano journalist Laura Puppato in November over an article criticizing him for various reasons including his refusal to meet Moroccan consul Ahmed El Khdar.

Casal di Principe city administrator sued Marilena Natale of the Gazzetta di Caserta in May over various articles criticizing his decision to spend 60,000 euros on legal assistance at a time when closures of wells were forcing the local population to restrict its water consumption.

In one of the many other lawsuits brought by politicians against journalists, a court in the city of Benevento ordered Marco Travaglio to pay 10,000 euros in damages in May for allegedly libelling Clemente Mastella, a Member of the European Parliament, in an article published in Il Fatto Quotidiano.

Firms and businessmen also often sue journalists. For example, Matteo Zallocco, the editor of the online newspaper Cronache Maceratesi, is the target of a libel suit by real estate developer Alfio Caccamo for raising questions about the speed with which he got approval for a shopping centre project and about the origin of his funding.

Pietro Ciucci, the head of ANAS, the state-owned company that maintains Italy’s highways, announced on 16 June that he is suing the news weekly l’Espresso for publishing an interview with Piergiorgio Baita, the former head of Mantovani, a company that is the subject of a bribery investigation. Six other publications – Il Fatto Quotidiano, Il Gazzettino, Nuova Venezia, Mattino di Padova, Tribuna di Treviso and La Notizia – are also being sued for quoting the interview.

Use of defamation suits to silence journalists is, of course, perfectly legal as well as being very effective.