"A chilling message to all journalists" as Italy's PM Meloni sues Roberto Saviano for defamation

Roberto Saviano, journalist (left); Giorgia Meloni, Italy's PM (right)
Roberto Saviano, journalist (left); Giorgia Meloni, Italy's PM (right)   -   Copyright  AFP
By Jonny Walfisz  with AFP

Italian journalist Roberto Saviano is facing a defamation trial from Italy’s new far-right prime minister.

The controversial Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has filed defamation charges against Saviano for his 2020 comments criticising her position on migration.

Saviano made his name as a journalist willing to write about the Mafia and organised crime in his country. Born in Naples, Saviano rose to prominence with his book ‘Gomorrah’, a searing investigative account of the dangerous organised crime organisation Camorra.

The book led to a film being made, Gomorrah in 2008. Co-written by Saviano, the film was nominated for the Palme D’Or and received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

Due to the success of Saviano’s work highlighting the violent nature of organised crime in Italy, he has lived under police protection. In 2006, he received death threats from the Casalese clan of Camorra. In 2008, an assassination plot was foiled.

Having spent his life’s work fighting the injustices of organised crime, it’s now the top level of the government going after Saviano.

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party came to power last month on a platform that pledged to stop the entry of migrants to the country.

In a brief statement to the court, Saviano called Meloni’s attacks on the NGOs that save lives at sea “inhumane.” Meloni was unable to attend the hearing as she is travelling to Bali for the G20.

If found guilty, Saviano could face three years in jail.

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Roberto Saviano addresses the media as he leaves on November 15, 2022 the City of Justice (Citta Giudiziaria) in RomeFILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP or licensors

Against an anti-immigration leader

The case relates to an incident in December 2020 when the humanitarian ship Open Arms rescued 111 migrants.

Sadly, before medical attention could come, a six-year-old Guinean boy named Joseph died.

Saviano was asked to comment on Joseph’s death by a political broadcaster, as a video was shown to him with Joseph’s mother audibly crying.

The writer addressed Meloni and Matteo Salvini, now deputy prime minister but then leader of anti-immigtation party Northern League.

“I just want to say to Meloni, and to Salvini, you are bastards! How could you?” Saviano said.

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Roberto Saviano receives an award from journalist Giovanni di Lorenzo (L) and Potsdam's Mayor Jann Jakobs during the 2016 international conference M100 Sanssouci ColloquiumRALF HIRSCHBERGER/(c) Copyright 2016, dpa (www.dpa.de). Alle Rechte vorbehalten

Meloni had said in 2019 that humanitarian NGO ships that rescue migrants “should be sunk,” while Salvini, as interior minister the same year, had blocked the arrival of these ships in Italy.

A text read outside of court showed Saviano defending his use of the word ‘bastards’ to highlight Meloni and Salvini’s “lies”.

“How could you be so thoughtless to isolate, to smear, to turn humanitarian ships into pirate ships?” he said, speaking to the media.

“Letting people drown is not a political opinion. Discrediting the humanitarian ships is not a political opinion, it is an infamy, and above all it is inhuman,” added Saviano.

"A worrying trend in Italy"

Writer’s association PEN has written an open letter to Meloni in defence of Saviano, urging her to “do everything in your power to support investigative journalism and independent media.”

“Saviano has been repeatedly targeted for peacefully expressing his views. The latest charges against him are sadly representative of a worrying trend in Italy, where journalists and writers work in the knowledge that they might be sued and imprisoned for what they say or what they write,” PEN’s International President Burhan Sonmez writes.

“As the Prime Minister of Italy, pursuing your case against him would send a chilling message to all journalists and writers in the country, who may no longer dare to speak out for fear of reprisals,” the letter continues.

Meloni's lawyer, Luca Libra, said there was no desire to “intimidate” anyone.

His client “is just a woman who has been insulted … on television in front of millions of viewers,” he added.

Italy is ranked 58th in the Reporters Without Borders 2022 World Press Freedom Index, the lowest in Western Europe.

The next hearing for the case will take place on 12 December. In February, Saviano will face another defamation trial from Salvini over a 2018 comment calling him the “minister of the mob”.