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Members of the Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE), with the support of the coalition’s Italian group and Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), express solidarity with Roberto Saviano who attended the first hearing in the proceedings for aggravated defamation initiated against him by current Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. We are seriously concerned about the criminal proceedings initiated in 2021 by the current Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the leader of Fratelli d’Italia. Under the current provisions on defamation, Roberto Saviano risks imprisonment for his criticism of Meloni during a TV programme.
Such accusations act as a gag on freedom of expression, a fundamental right enshrined in the Italian Constitution and international law. No journalist or writer should be prosecuted for expressing their honest opinion on issues of public interest. A criminal defamation suit is not an acceptable response in a democracy, all the more so when it comes from a high ranking representative of the institution. This threat to Saviano reveals, once again, the degree of the abuse of defamation suits or SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) in Italy.
The lawsuit for aggravated defamation was initiated by current Prime Minister Meloni in November 2021, in response to comments made by Roberto Saviano during the episode of the TV programme Piazza Pulita which aired on 3rd December 2020. Saviano’s comment was formulated in response to the controversial rhetoric employed in recent years by the two political leaders to describe the migration emergency in the Mediterranean.
In November 2020, the NGO ship Open Arms rescued a number of displaced individuals from a shipwreck, caused by a collapsing dinghy in the Mediterranean Sea. The delayed rescue by the Italian authorities had prevented timely assistance to the survivors who were in dire need of specialist medical care, including a six-month-old infant who later died on the Open Arms. Following Piazza Pulita’s coverage of the investigation on the authorities’ delayed response, Roberto Saviano had referred to both Meloni, the then leader of Fratelli d’Italia and the Lega secretary, Matteo Salvini as ‘bastards’.
The possibility that Roberto Saviano, in his role as a writer and journalist, could incur a prison sentence for expressing his opinion on a politically sensitive issue, such as the treatment of migrants in Italy, once again draws attention to the serious inadequacies of Italian libel laws. The right to freedom of expression is enshrined in Article 21 of the Italian Constitution. Furthermore, international law and jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) guarantees that the right to freedom of expression extends to statements and ideas that may ‘offend, shock or disturb‘ and that opinions are entitled to enhanced protection under the guarantee of the right to freedom of expression. Further, the ECtHR has clarified that public figures and, in particular, political actors must tolerate higher levels of criticism and scrutiny given their public position within society, and that in such cases criminal prosecution has a chilling effect and is violating the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by Article 10 ECHR.
Those who express their opinion on matters of public interest should not fear nor be exposed to intimidation, conviction, or imprisonment. On this last point, the Italian Constitutional Court has made its position clear, urging lawmakers to initiate a general reform of the legislation on defamation that would bring Italian legislation in line with the standards of European and international law. With the ruling of 9 June 2020 and the decision of 22 June 2021, the Court, in line with previous judgments of the ECtHR, declared prison sentences in cases of defamation in the press unconstitutional. However, the provision of prison sentences remains in place for cases of ‘exceptional gravity’. In accordance with such provisions, Saviano still faces a custodial sentence because the formal charge is aggravated defamation.
At the conclusion of the first hearing at the Criminal Court of Rome on 15 November 2022, it was decided that the trial will be re-assigned to a new judge and adjourned to 12 December. The current Minister of Infrastructure, Matteo Salvini, has filed a petition to become a civil plaintiff. The Lega leader has also a pending defamation lawsuit initiated against Roberto Saviano in 2018: its first hearing is scheduled for 1 February 2023. Further, on 28 January 2023 another defamation trial instigated by Gennaro Sangiuliano, current Minister of Culture, awaits Roberto Saviano.
At the end of the first hearing in the Meloni case on 15th November, Saviano reiterated the central role that writers play in a democratic society: “My tools are words. I try, with the word, to persuade, to convince, to activate”. Exiting the courtroom, he argued that: “Democracy is based not only on a consensus that can lead to winning the electoral lottery, but exists if dissent and criticism are allowed. Without such premises there is no democratic oxygen”.
The perilous situation in which Roberto Saviano finds himself must also be taken into account. Life under escort, already a cause of marginalisation for journalists, was only necessary due to threats made against Saviano by organised crime and these threats should not be amplified through further threats made by high ranking politicians.
Joining the dissent expressed by Italian and European journalists’ associations, the undersigned organisations call on Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni to immediately withdraw the charges against Roberto Saviano. We support the recommendation formulated by Italian and European civil society and international organisations to the new parliament to act against vexatious complaints and to quickly adopt a comprehensive reform of both civil and criminal defamation laws in Italy. Finally, we urge Italy to bring forward legislation to tackle the use of SLAPPs in line with the EU Anti-SLAPP Recommendation of 27 April 2022. The Italian Government is also urged to give its full support to the Anti-SLAPP Directive as proposed by the European Commission.
OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
Access Info Europe
Blueprint for Free Speech
Civil Liberties Union For Europe
European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights
Index on Censorship
International Press Institute
Irish PEN/ PEN na hÉireann
Justice & Environment
Legal Human Academy
The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation
Whistleblowing International Network
Tomorrow anti-mafia writer Roberto Saviano stands trial for defaming the good name, if that it be, of Italy’s neo-fascist Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, after he condemned her remarks calling for ships that sought to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean be sunk and the migrants left to drown. Saviano spoke out on a TV show in 2020 when an NGO rescue ship picked up 111 migrants stranded in the Mediterranean. But a six-month-old baby boy, originally from Guinea, drowned when the dinghy he was in capsized.
A clearly distressed Saviano said: “They’re bastards: Meloni, Salvini… How is it possible, given such despair? They have a legitimate policy which opposes receiving [migrants] – but surely not in the case of an emergency on the open sea?”
The trial has been widely seen as an attack on free speech and, yet again, raises questions about the ability of the far right to use Italy’s bizarre legal code to gag their critics. The case is even more fraught because Meloni was the leader of the ultra-right Brothers of Italy party then but is now also the country’s prime minister. If found guilty, Saviano faces a potential jail sentence. But the writer is no ordinary target. Since 2006 he has been under sentence of death from the Camorra, Naples’ number one crime organisation, after he published Gomorrah, a book that challenged the clan’s silent grip on much of southern Italy.
The title comes from anti-Camorra Catholic priest Giuseppe Diana in 1994, who was murdered for his courage: “The time has come to stop being a Gomorrah.”
Saviano faces calls from Meloni’s camp to cut his police protection. In plain English, by criticising Meloni he may end up being murdered by the very gangsters the writer says are in secret association with the far right. He faces a second trial for criticising Meloni’s coalition partner, Matteo Salvini, in the same TV interview: this case is already grinding its way through the courts.
Saviano told The Observer: “There was a dramatic, tragic shipwreck… A baby was drowned. But from Meloni and Salvini came ferocious and inhuman anti-migrant propaganda. In the light of this, and the libel charge, do you really think mine were such offensive words?”
PEN’s President Burhan Sonmez has written to the prime minister calling on her to drop the trial. He wrote: “Despite calls by Italy’s Constitutional Court to undertake a comprehensive review of criminal defamation laws, journalists and writers are still liable to prison sentences in case of defamation through the press. Criminal defamation lawsuits exhaust their victims. They rob them of their time, of their money, of their vital energy. Crucially, they are punitive and can lead to self-censorship and discourage the investigative journalism that is so necessary in a healthy and functioning democracy.”
Thus far there has been no response from the prime minister’s office to PEN’s letter but Meloni has given no signs of backing down. She said three days ago: “On that boat were migrants, not shipwrecked people. People boarded those ships in international waters … The ship that took them in its charge was equipped to accommodate them and provide for all their reception needs…The banana republic in which citizens are so vexed but which is so popular on the left is over.”
What the prime minister fails to realise is that, along with the case brought by her, Italy’s standing as a civilised democracy is on trial too.
An Italian writer who exposed the violent world of the Naples Mafia was awarded a major free-speech prize yesterday. Roberto Saviano was awarded the Pen/Pinter International Writer of Courage prize, to share with British playwright David Hare. Saviano’s book, “Gomorrah”, which was published in 2006, exposed Naples’ criminal underworld, and the publication of the book led to death threats to the writer, who was forced to go into hiding. Saviano did not attend the ceremony, but sent a message expressing his gratitude “to those who made it possible that my words became dangerous for certain powers that need silence and shade.”
In this morning’s Times, Gomorrah author Roberto Saviano, who has been in hiding since writing his best-selling expose of Neopolitan organised crime, decries the increasingly gangsterish tactics of the Italian government in dealing with its critics:
Anyone in Italy today who criticises the Government or the Prime Minister knows what to expect in return — not a contrary opinion, but a campaign aimed at discrediting him.
Tomorrow a large demonstration promoted by the Italian National Press Federation is being held in Rome — a strange protest for a democratic state. Never before has the press had to demonstrate to safeguard its own freedom in Europe. Italy looks more and more like an anomaly in the heart of Western Europe.
Obviously, Italy cannot be compared with China, Cuba, Burma or Iran. For us to demonstrate in defence of freedom of expression means to demand to be allowed to carry out one’s work without being personally attacked. It means denouncing an all-encompassing climate of menace.
As Saviano says, it’s astounding that this happens in the European Union in 2009. You can read more about the situation in Index on Censorship’s report here.
Hat tip: Nick Cohen