As part of the International Press Institute (IPI)’s ongoing monitoring of press freedom in Italy, IPI contributor Giulia Shaughnessy spoke with Marilù Mastrogiovanni, a prominent Italian journalist and founder and editor of the newspaper Il Tacco D’Italia, founded in Lecce, Italy.
Mastrogiovanni has been the recipient of growing attacks, including threats on her life, in response to her investigative work on the intersection of organized crime, politics, and business. In one instance, five men broke down the exterior walls to her newspaper’s office to steal important documents. In another, her dog was beaten to death.
Up until last year, Mastrogiovanni had lived and worked in the southeast Italian city of Lecce. As the threats to her and her family steadily worsened, however, she was forced to move further north to the city of Bari. As a result of these threats, the Italian government has assigned Mastrogiovanni police protection.
Mastrogiovanni’s stature as a journalist was recognized in January 2019, when she was appointed by UNESCO’s director-general as one of the six Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize jury members.
Mastrogiovanni spoke to IPI about her personal experiences as an investigative journalist in Italy, facing what she describes as “an ever-worsening climate of hatred towards journalists”.
IPI: What kind of threats do you receive and why?
Marilù Mastrogiovanni: The latest threats I have received are a series of lawsuits that force me to defend myself and deplete my mental, physical, and economic resources.
Most of the lawsuits are initiated by politicians and corporations because of the investigations I conduct, which focus on the grey zone in which mafia, corporate powers and politics interact. I deal mostly with people who have a much higher spending capacity than me and don’t think twice about suing me.
Another very serious instance of intimidation that I was subject to was the issuing of a preventive injunction against some articles on my newspaper’s online platform. I had conducted some very pointed, contested investigations into a company, covering their proximity to mafia circles. The company sued me, arguing that the articles were defamatory, and requested an injunction banning publication of the articles. The court initially ruled in the company’s favour and the articles were hidden online for 45 days. But because it was such a serious attack, both the public as well as many Italian journalist and press freedom organizations protested, and eventually the case against me was dropped.
IPI: How fair was the judicial process in your opinion in that case?
MM: They conducted the investigation as if I was a murderer. It was an incredibly fast court case, basically without any investigation or evidence before it went to trial. This is unprecedented in a libel case, because these kinds of cases are not time sensitive. It was really what I would call a borderline case.
IPI: Do you also receive threats of physical harm?
MM: Last year I received 4,000 emails with death threats over the course of one single night. I brought charges and the security measures I already had were intensified. This is just a snapshot of the climate of the last year and a half.
IPI: Has this climate gotten worse in the past few years?
MM: Yes, absolutely. The climate has gotten worse and the lawsuits have increased.
I am a journalist who is independent in every way in the sense that I am the founder of my newspaper, and therefore my own editor. When someone attacks me personally, it is also an attack on the newspaper. It’s one thing to attack journalists with a big publisher behind them, it’s another to attack freelance journalists who are independent and have to defend themselves alone. Journalists who work far from the centres of power, far from the big publishers and the big newspapers but very close to everyday people are those most affected by this system of reckless lawsuits and hatred towards journalists. They are the ones who face the greatest risks.
IPI: In your opinion, does the system of protection of journalists in Italy function as it should?
MM: No, I don’t think it works at all. Neither I nor my children are adequately protected. I had to change cities and move houses, and I did this to get away from a place in which I received very serious threats. My house was set on fire one night, while my family and I were sleeping inside. As the fire fighters were 50 kilometres away, my husband and I had to put the fire out ourselves. After this happened, we decided to leave.
IPI: Does your police protection limit your ability to work?
MM: For my protection, I should communicate my movements, but I don’t do so because that would mean not being able to move freely and not being able to meet my sources. For investigative journalists, this means depriving them of air, breaking their pens in half.
IPI: What needs to change?
MM: As far as the libel law is concerned, there is an assumption that any mistake a journalist makes is in bad faith. If there was an acknowledgment that mistakes are normally caused by negligence rather that malice, libel cases wouldn’t affect journalism that much.
The government also needs to implement a law against frivolous lawsuits. The law needs to compel whoever brings the lawsuit to pay at least 50 percent of the claim for damages if they lose. And a person who brings a frivolous lawsuit should be automatically indicted for slander the moment in which the lawsuit is thrown out. Also, the burden of proof in many cases falls on the journalists, and this is problematic.
In addition, defamation is still a criminal offence in Italy that foresees prison terms. We tend to disregard this because our democratic system is mature and the rule of law is respected. However, with such a tense political situation I could one day find myself in prison for having written something that is not fully accurate. Prison terms for defamation need to be abolished.
IPI: In your opinion, does Italy run the risk of adopting the type of media capture that we are observing in other European countries?
MM: I think we have a strong constitution that has its roots in the Italian resistance and antifascist movements. The seeds of this resistance have, after more than 70 years, produced the ripe fruits of democratic values that have become entrenched in the Italian system and public opinion. I don’t think you can compare the democratic system that we have in Italy with those in Poland or Turkey, for example. The wave of hatred and populism that we in Italy are experiencing is undeniable, but I don’t think the situations are comparable.