I first wrote about Italian author and journalist Roberto Saviano in these pages in December 2008. He had been living under police protection for two years after publishing Gomorrah, a gritty denunciation of the Naples mafia. In that year, Saviano was forced to leave Italy when the mobsters he had exposed in the book threatened to assassinate him by Christmas. The book has since sold over ten million copies worldwide. Naples-born Saviano has also written several screenplays and theatre scripts and regularly contributes to newspapers and magazines, including La Repubblica, the New York Times, El Diario, Die Zeit, The Guardian and Le Monde. He is the winner of the 2011 PEN/Pinter International Writer of Courage Award and of the 2019 Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression.
Now Saviano is in trouble with Italy’s deputy prime minister and interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who is attempting to bring criminal defamation charges against him. On 20 March 2019, Saviano reported that he had been summoned to stand trial for defaming Salvini. Salvini’s hard-right Lega Nord party began as a northern separatist movement campaigning to ‘free’ Italy’s wealthy north from the supposedly lazy south. Saviano has called the party an ‘enemy’ of southerners and is reportedly proud to count himself among the people Salvini has singled out for attack, who also include immigrants and Roma people. The row between the two men broke out in June 2018, when Salvini prevented the Aquarius, a migrant rescue ship carrying 629 people, from docking at Italy’s ports. The Aquarius, which had been on its way to Sicily, then got caught in a standoff between Italy and Malta, which also refused to allow the migrants to land. Shortly before the row erupted, Salvini had said that Sicily ‘cannot be Europe’s refugee camp’.
Responding in The Guardian to Salvini’s hard stance, Saviano said, ‘I have never felt a greater need to try to explain why this new Italian government cannot be allowed to survive. Even before it has got down to real work, it has already done so much irreparable damage … Italians are going backwards, socially, amid an upsurge of nationalism that displays racist animus against anything perceived to be an alien body … It is Italy’s duty to battle for change for the better, not to descend into the most boorish nativism. Human lives are at stake.’
That month, in a television interview, Salvini questioned whether Saviano should continue to receive police protection, stating, ‘The competent authorities will judge whether he is at risk, because it seems to me that he spends a lot of time abroad … It’s only right that Italians check how their money’s being spent.’ He later clarified that any decision regarding the protection of Saviano would not be made by him but by the relevant authorities.
Saviano responded by accusing the interior minister of making mafia-style threats. In a tweet, he referred to Salvini as il ministro della malavita (‘the minister of the underworld’), a phrase borrowed from the early 20th-century anti-Fascist Gaetano Salvemini. Saviano also claimed to have seen members of southern Italy’s most notorious mafia families attending Salvini’s rallies and accused the minister of ignoring the dominance of criminal organisations in the south, preferring instead to stir up resentment against immigrants.
Salvini filed a criminal defamation suit against the journalist in July 2018 under Article 595 of the Italian Penal Code, which defines defamation as damage to the reputation of an individual through communication with several persons. The offence carries up to three years in prison. He wrote on Twitter, ‘I accept any criticisms, but I do not allow anyone to say that I help the mafia.’ Defamation is also classified as a criminal offence under Article 13 of the Press Law, which punishes defamation committed by journalists with imprisonment for up to six years.
In 2016, the Justice Committee of Italy’s Senate approved a bill that would have resulted in journalists facing up to nine years in jail if convicted of defaming public officials. Following a nationwide outcry, the bill was withdrawn. In May 2017, the UN Human Rights Committee called on the Italian authorities to ‘consider the complete decriminalization of defamation and libel’ and amend Article 13 of the Press Law and Article 595 of the Penal Code. PEN has urged Italy to end the use of criminal law in cases of defamation and treat it as a matter for civil litigation.
Readers might like to show their support for Saviano by sending messages of solidarity. Saviano has often spoken about how important support from the international community is to him. PEN is collating messages and publishing them on its website. Please email these to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please also send messages on Facebook, Twitter and other social media using the hashtag #StandWithSaviano.
In addition, readers may like to send appeals urging the Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, to drop all defamation charges against Roberto Saviano, seeking assurances that his police protection will continue and urging the Italian authorities to decriminalise defamation and libel and amend Article 13 of the Press Law and Article 595 of the Penal Code.
Appeals to be addressed to:
Matteo Salvini, Ministry of the Interior
Email (c/o Andrea Paganella): email@example.com
His Excellency Raffaele Trombetta
The Italian Embassy
14 Three Kings Yard, London W1K 4EH