Why press freedom in Italy is far below the one in Burkina Faso?

Roberto Cotroneo, journalist, writer and Director of LUISS School of Journalism in Rome. (Supplied)

Meet his mother without feeling that she is scared: this is one of the many things Italian journalist Roberto Saviano is missing of his previous life and his wish list is quite long.

Saviano, 38, has been living under police protection for now over 10 years. He started receiving death threats following the publication in 2006 of the over 10 million copy best-seller “Gomorra” in which he reported about Mafia’s business system in Italy.

His case shocked the whole country. Court cases and investigations against Mafia bosses took many of them to jail based on Gomorra’s revelations. But Saviano’s case is not rare in Italy.

“Six Italian journalists are still under round-the-clock police protection because of death threats, mostly from the mafia or fundamentalist groups. The level of violence against reporters (including verbal and physical intimidation and threats) is alarming”, according to Reporters Without Borders’ report.

Recently Italian journalist Federica Angeli had to face Armando Spada, member of the Mafia clan Spada, but this time in a courtroom. Five years ago, Angeli decided to report Spada to the authorities after having witnessed a multiple attempted murder. 

Under police protection 

Since 2013 Angeli, her husband and their three children live under police protection because of the threats she started receiving following her investigation on Mafia’s business in the area of Ostia, a beach town close to Rome. Since then, the reporter says, “Freedom is over”.

“I have three children, I tried to explain them what happened and I tried to prevent them from feeling my fear. I can’t go and have an ice cream, I have to decide carefully where to sit in a restaurant, I can’t even go out on the balcony of my house”, Angeli said.

If taking mafia bosses to justice and having journalists protected by the police seem like a step forward in enforcing security and in making investigative journalism possible, the fact that journalists lose their freedom of movement, hence of reporting, is surely a step backwards for civil society. 

World Press Freedom Index 

According to Reporters Without Borders, Italy ranks 52 in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, following countries as Botswana (48), Tonga (49), Papua New Guinea (51). Even third world countries like Burkina Faso (42) are implementing press freedom far better than Italy according to Reporters Without Borders.

Mafia is just one of the most evident problems journalists have to face in Italy, but politicians are surely not helping improving press freedom in the country.

“Journalists also feel pressured by politicians, and increasingly opt to censor themselves” said Reporters Without Borders, also denouncing “politicians such as Beppe Grillo of the Five Star Movement who do not hesitate to publicly out the journalists they dislike”.

Politicians and criminals are not making Italian journalists’ lives easy, and there are also flaws in the judiciary system itself.

“Under a new law, defaming politicians, judges, or civil servants is punishable by sentences of six to nine years in prison” Reporters Without Borders says in its 2017 report on Italy.

A prison sentence in a criminal defamation case is against the European Convention on Human Rights and it has also been criticized by the United Nations, putting Italy in the club of those countries not complying with human rights regulations.

More specifically, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) stated that the imposition of a jail sentence for defamation is incompatible with Art.10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, regardless of whether the conviction itself was justified.

“In order for society to preserve freedom of the media, cases of libel or slander against journalists should be dealt with by a civil court, but should in no circumstances result in a penal sanction,” the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) wrote in a letter in 2002.

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated more clearly that “imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty”, recommending the decriminalization of defamation. 

Judiciary system 

The judiciary system is sometimes used as a weapon against journalists in Italy. Criminal complaints are often filed against reporters as an intimidating tool in order to stop them from publishing inconvenient stories. In most cases these complaints end with no conviction, but this strategy is still quite effective in overloading journalists with paper work and legal fees to pay.

Mafia, politicians’ abusive pressure, jail sentence for defamation, criminal complaints: the list is not over yet.

“One of the limits of Italian journalism is its editorial system. Publishing houses in Italy are often in the hands of entrepreneurs that have media outlets as an accessorize functional to other business activities. This, of course, doesn’t improve the quality of journalism” said Roberto Cotroneo, journalist, writer and Director of LUISS School of Journalism in Rome.

“Another issue is related to its own historical culture: Italian journalism has always been more inclined towards literature than accountability. Italian journalists have always tended to engage rather than inform” Cotroneo explained to Al Arabiya, adding that this doesn’t automatically lead to a lack of freedom.

“Said so, listing Italy below countries like Burkina Faso when it comes to press freedom shows no contact with reality. They really don’t know what they are talking about” Cotroneo concluded.

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