Roberto Saviano by Lucy Popescu

Lucy Popescu

Roberto Saviano


The Italian government’s attempts to silence the acclaimed author and journalist Roberto Saviano are a blatant attack on free expression. Saviano has been charged with two counts of criminal defamation. If convicted, he faces three years in prison.

On 20 March 2019, Saviano reported that he had been summoned to stand trial on charges of defaming Matteo Salvini, then deputy prime minister and interior minister, over a speech in which he described him as Ministro della Mala Vita (‘Minister of the Underworld’). It’s a phrase he borrowed from the early 20th-century anti-Fascist Gaetano Salvemini. Forced into exile by Mussolini’s Fascist regime, Salvemini accused the then prime minister, Giovanni Giolitti, of engaging with individuals with strong ties to criminal organisations. In his speech, Saviano accused Salvini of ignoring the Mafia stranglehold on Italy in favour of stirring up resentment against immigrants. Salvini, who has brought a complaint against Saviano under Article 595 of the Italian penal code, notably used the letterhead of the Interior Ministry to launch his action. The first hearing took place on 1 February this year, but the case has been adjourned until June.

Naples-born Saviano, aged forty-three, has been living under constant police protection since October 2006 after receiving death threats following the publication of his bestseller Gomorrah, about the Naples Mafia (in June 2018 Salvini threatened to remove Saviano’s police escort). Saviano’s other books include a collection of essays, Beauty and the Inferno (2009), and Zero Zero Zero (2013), an exposé of the cocaine industry. He has also written several screenplays and theatre scripts and regularly contributes to newspapers and magazines worldwide, 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 received the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression in 2019.

In a separate case, Saviano has been charged under Article 595 with defaming Giorgia Meloni, now Italy’s prime minister. The charge stems from comments directed at her and Salvini on the political TV chat show Piazzapulita in December 2020. While discussing the recent drowning in the Mediterranean of a six-month-old baby from Guinea following the sinking of a boat carrying migrants, Saviano took aim at Meloni and Salvini. When in opposition, Meloni had described NGOs attempting to rescue refugees in the central Mediterranean as ‘traffickers’ whose boats should be sunk, while Salvini, during his time as interior minister, had introduced a decree imposing fines of up to €50,000 on NGOs that transported rescued migrants to Italian ports. Incensed, Saviano commented: ‘I just want to say to Meloni, and Salvini, you bastards! How could you have?’ Meloni subsequently brought a complaint against Saviano for criminal defamation. A judge in Rome later ruled that he should be tried. Salvini asked to join the criminal proceedings as a civil party seeking damages; his request was rejected.

The trial opened on 15 November 2022. In an open letter, PEN International’s president, Burhan Sonmez, urged Meloni to drop all charges against Saviano, underlining how ‘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.’ The next hearing has been set for 27 June 2023.

Article 595 defines defamation as damage to the reputation of a person through communication with several persons and carries a sentence of up to three years in prison. In 2020, Italy’s Constitutional Court urged Parliament to undertake a wide and comprehensive reform of the defamation laws, both criminal and civil. In June 2021, the court ruled that Article 595 was compliant with the constitution as it allows imprisonment only in cases of ‘exceptional severity’.

The fact that these two criminal defamation prosecutions were initiated by the prime minister and deputy prime minister is an ill omen for free speech in Italy. PEN believes that they are intended to intimidate Saviano and anyone else who dares to criticise the Italian government.

Italy’s minister of culture, Gennaro Sangiuliano, is also suing Saviano in a civil defamation case for a tweet in 2018 that criticised his appointment as head of the news programme TG2 at the Italian state-owned television channel Rai 2. Sangiuliano is seeking hundreds of thousands of euros in compensation. The case is ongoing.

Readers might like to send appeals conveying serious concern that freedom of expression is under attack in Italy, calling on the authorities to drop all criminal defamation charges against writer and journalist Roberto Saviano and urging the government to amend Article 595 of the penal code.

Appeals to be addressed to:

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni
Presidency of the Council of Ministers
Via dell’Impresa 89
00186 Rome, Italy

His Excellency Inigo Lambertini
Italian Embassy
14 Three Kings Yard, London W1K 4EH
Fax: +44 20 7312 2230

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