Is Italy's Press Really Free?
Illustration Credit: Chiara Castiglione

Whilst a democratic nation, there is not complete press freedom in Italy. As of 2020, Italy ranks 41st in the World Press Freedom Index, among the lowest in Europe.

It is important to recognise that a ‘democratic’ country is not synonymous with a ‘free’ country. Italy is one of the many European countries in which a high rate of organised crime and aggressive politics prevent there from being a true freedom of press.

In the past decade, Italian journalists have become increasingly threatened by Mafia organisations, particularly in Rome and Southern Italy. Italy currently has 20 journalists under 24-hour police protection – the second highest number in the world after Columbia – with the most notable example being Roberto Saviano. Saviano grew up in Naples, and in 2006 released his book ‘Gomorrah’ exposing the secrets of the local Neapolitan Mafia, the Camorra.

The book became hugely successful and was turned into a critically acclaimed film and television-series. However, the Mafia members did not appreciate the exposé, as the popularity of the story incriminated them in countless crimes and revealed the secrets of their organisation.

As the success of the book grew, Saviano began receiving death threats from the Mafia. First by letters and on the phone, then in real life. With his life under threat by the Mafia, he was placed, and remains, under 24-hour armed police protection.

The documentary ‘Roberto Saviano: writing under police protection’ shows the extreme measures Saviano must now take in order to live his daily life: he must travel in a bulletproof car with at least five bodyguards, he cannot stay in the same place for more than three nights in a row, and his family has had to go into hiding.

In an interview with the BBC, Saviano said, “it might be seen as absurd, but this is very common for people who speak out on the subject. At the moment in Europe, there are many writers who find themselves in the same situation”.

He also commented that “it is fundamentally important that I put myself out there”. Saviano’s book has enjoyed immense success – now, he has encouraged Italians to challenge the status quo. It explains the duty of others to speak out and shed light on unjust conditions, such as the lack of freedom of press.

It is not just threats from Mafia organisations that prohibit freedom of speech in Italy, but also strict defamation laws imposed by the government.

Article 595 of the Italian Criminal Code defines defamation as “injuring the reputation of an absent person via communication with others”, and considers “defamation committed against a political, administrative, or judicial body, or a representative thereof” as aggravated defamation, “resulting in higher penalties” for the convict.

Journalists convicted of portraying others in a negative light can be fined up to 20,000 euros or even face imprisonment for up to 6 years, receiving the most severe punishments if the subject of the defamation is a politician or public servant.

As a result, journalists censor their own material due to there being very few safeguards protecting them from unfounded abuse of these laws.  This means that many journalists avoid reporting on important current affairs through fear that they could find themselves with crippling financial lawsuits, or even a prison sentence.

This not only affects journalists, but also other aspects of Italian media. Satirical programmes and political satire are very rarely produced in the country, as this would result in being persecuted under Italy’s defamation laws.

To what extent should the freedom of press be controlled by the law? Should anyone be able to publish whatever they want? An article by the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) highlights how other European countries have reformed their defamation laws, allowing “people to bring legitimate defamation claims, while also protecting the right to report freely on matters of public interest”.

This indicates that there needs to be serious reform to Italy’s defamation laws. They should be enforced justly, without prohibiting the freedom of speech of those attempting to report important stories.

Moreover, the situation is perpetuated by the hostility of Italian politicians towards the nation’s press. The 2018 report from the Council of Europe’s Platform for the Protection of Journalism stated that Italy’s freedom of press has “clearly deteriorated”, highlighting the fact that the journalist unions complained of a “constant risk of violence fuelled by the hostile rhetoric of members of the government and the ruling coalition parties”.

The report singled out politicians such as Luigi di Maio, the former leader of the far-right Five Star Movement (M5S), for “regularly express[ing], through social media, rhetoric particularly hostile to the media and journalists”. For example, in 2018, Maio hurled insults at journalists for reporting on a case, sparking outrage from Italian journalist unions.

This hostile behaviour towards the Italian press results in journalists being attacked frequently, both verbally and physically, by neo-fascist groups and supporters of the M5S; in 2019, two Italian journalists were attacked by far-right supporters in Rome.

Furthermore, in Italy it is common for most media outlets, such as TV channels and newspapers, to be sponsored by a political party. The most notorious example of this is owner of the Mediaset Empire and media tycoon, Silvio Berlusconi. Mediaset is Berlusconi’s mass media company, and it is the largest commercial broadcaster in Italy, managing some of the most popular Italian TV channels.

Naturally, these channels tend to present Berlusconi and his centre-right political party, Forza Italia, in a favourable light. This came as a great advantage to Berlusconi when he was Prime Minister of Italy, granting him control over not only the most popular private channels, but also the state television network, RAI. This gave him the power to appoint producers and high-ranking executives who supported his agenda, many of whom are still around today.

It has been estimated that whilst in power, Berlusconi had control of around 90% of Italy’s media. To put this into perspective, imagine the CEO of ITV had controlling shares in Channel 4 and Sky, and then became the Prime Minster and undermined the freedom of the BBC.

Berlusconi has made his stance towards freedom of press very clear, stating in a 2009 interview that “there is a danger in Italy that freedom of press would defame Italy and its democracy, a serious fault that is anti-Italian in spirit”. His party, Forza Italia, is currently in a coalition with the Lega Nord, an extreme right-wing party, playing a major role in Italy’s political landscape.

It is hard for journalists to have an independent voice as they must conform to the political agendas of their sponsors and must align with the agenda set.

How do the Italian people feel about the situation?

The people of Italy are tired of not being able to express themselves fully in the media. In Italy, protests are a common way for people to express their grievances, and there have been many a protest concerning the lack of a true freedom of press.

Saviano has played an active role in raising awareness for the topic; speaking at a freedom of press protest in Rome, he said “how is it possible that we have to protest for freedom of speech in a democratic country? In reality the response is simple. Obvious. The freedom of speech for which we are fighting for is the peace of mind to work freely, and the possibility to know that we can tell stories without having to expect punishment”.

Saviano’s words summarise perfectly Italy’s problems regarding freedom of press. Journalism is one of the most dangerous careers in Italy, and journalists lack the freedom to report objectively on important stories. Just as the Italian people are protesting against the situation, it is the duty of others to shed light on countries, such as Italy, in which complete freedom of speech is not available, and not to assume that a democratic nation is a free one.