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How the Mafia Intimidates and Controls the Italian Media

We talked with Italian MP Claudio Fava, deputy president of the parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission, about the link between organized crime and information.

Front page of Italian newspaper L'Ora from 1972, announcing the murder of investigative journalist Giovanni Spampinato. The title reads: "Our correspondent from Ragusa / Killed only because he was searching for the truth."

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

In the latest Reporters Without Borders (RWB) World Press Freedom Index, Italy ranked 73 out of 180 countries. Last year, RWB's 100 Information Heroes List featured two Italians—among reporters engaged in war zones, investigating drug trafficking, or working under harsh dictatorships. One of them is Pino Maniaci of Telejato (a small TV station based in the town of Partinico, in the province of Palermo, Sicily), who has fallen victim to "something like 40 slashed tires, three burned out cars, as well as physical assault."


The above testimony is featured in a report "on the state of information and the plight of journalists threatened by the mafia" by the Italian Parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission. The document, which was approved unanimously by the Italian Chamber of Deputies a few days ago, is the result of 12 months of hearings conducted to investigate the relationship between organized crime and information in Italy. Its findings aren't particularly encouraging: Contact between mafia organizations and the press is frequent, and attempts to control media and information by the mafia even more so—especially in the Italian provinces.

The report is based on data gathered by the Italian NGO "Ossigeno per l'informazione" (Oxygen for information), which has recorded 2060 "threats and acts of intimidation or retaliation against journalists," since October 2014.

I called Claudio Fava, deputy president of the parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission and coordinator of the committee that conducted the survey, to discuss the situation.

VICE: What is the relationship between the Italian press and the mafia today?
Claudio Fava: The number of journalists being targeted, and in many cases silenced, by criminal organizations keeps growing. And the problem extends to newspapers—especially smaller regional publications that are important because they report on local news.

Is the Italian public aware of the situation?
The public knows very little. They are only aware of the most talked about cases that involve famous journalists. It's not just that people don't talk about the threats, the risks and the dangers you take on as a journalist—they don't even talk about the stories you tell. Beyond the generic solidarity statements, journalists are kept in isolation, which of course puts them at even greater risk.


This is the first time in 50 years that the Anti-Mafia Commission addresses the link between organized crime and information. Yet the underworld has always had a certain influence on the Italian media, right?
The mafia's efforts to influence the flow of information are age-old. What have changed and become more sophisticated are the tactics they employ to exert that influence. Once upon a time, they used gunfire; these days they send a platoon of lawyers asking for millions of euros in damages your way. Their tools are subtler, but the result is the same. The fact that the commission is finally addressing the issue shows that the issue is urgent.

Italian MP Claudio Fava speaking in the parliament

How important is it for the gangs to control information in their territories?
It is critical. Criminal organizations need to control information to gain impunity. Access to information enables you to build a personal point of view. When you don't know what is going on, you live in a constant state of suspended freedom.

The report includes a point dedicated to specious litigations. How do these affect journalists?
Specious litigations have the power to economically isolate journalists. We are talking about freelance reporters with loose or no contracts, who get paid a few euros per article. To hurt a journalist or to silence them, it is often useful to isolate them—financially and professionally—using slander and other intimidatory strategies that are not exclusive to mafia gangs.


What has been done to protect Italian journalists in recent decades?
The real question is: What have journalists been doing for themselves? We shouldn't think of this as an issue for someone else to take care of. Journalists—and I say this as a journalist myself—must be the first to take on the struggle.

There are different ways to do so: Speaking up about the risks fellow journalists are faced with is one; pushing for new regulations to protect the freelancers is another.

The number of journalists who have been threatened in Italy, 2006–2016. Data collected by Ossigeno per l'informazione

The report mentions "exploitative journalism" and indicates freelancers as the main victims.
That's correct. The profession of journalism is often practiced outside the law—namely, many work as journalists without being members of the Italian Register of Journalists. Those journalists, who don't have a press card in their pocket, are considered illegal, abusive, and invisible, but they are not illegal, abusive, and invisible to those who threaten or even kill them. In Sicily, three freelancers were recently killed: Mauro Rostagno, Peppino Impastato, and Beppe Alfano. The professional body can only do so much. There is a lot of distraction, indifference, and even a hint of resignation. According to the data that Ossigeno gave us, more than 2,000 journalists have been threatened in just over a decade. These are problems we should all care about, not just on a political level but on a professional level, too.

How do Italian publishers and journalists react to threats and pressure? Is self-censorship common?
Sure, that happens, too. If you are being threatened, and you don't have enough protection because you work for a small publisher, because the pay is bad and because your colleagues do not care, you may choose to self-censor. It doesn't mean you are an accomplice; it just means you chose the easy way out.

So what could be done to change this situation?
We proposed that frivolous lawsuits are reviewed and punished in a different way to how they are treated now—not with a fine, but by forcing those who venture fraudulently in a judicial process to pay a considerable percentage of the damages asked. Another way is acting on the current condition of freelancers, in terms of contractual guarantees. A third point is talking, not just about the threats but more importantly about the stories that raised those threats. It is a commitment that the commission extends to everyone—especially journalists.