Court to rule on Italy PM’s case against reporter Saviano


An Italian court is set to decide on Thursday on a defamation case pitting Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni against journalist Roberto Saviano, which he has characterised as a battle for free speech.

The case relates to comments Saviano made back in December 2020, before the far-right Meloni took office, criticising her stance on migration and the charity ships that rescue migrants making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean from North Africa.

It went to trial in November 2022, just weeks after she took office at the head of a hard-right coalition elected in part on a promise to end mass migration into Italy.

“I am being prosecuted for the words I used to criticise the populist lies uttered against NGOs and migrants in recent years,” Saviano wrote on Thursday on X, formerly known as Twitter.

He previously said the judge “will have to establish whether or not it is possible to exercise the right of criticism” in Italy.

The journalist, best known for his international mafia bestseller “Gomorrah”, risks up to three years in prison if found guilty, although any decision this week is open to appeal.

Saviano is supported by press freedom groups, who have said the case sends a “chilling message” to journalists.

“(It) serves as a dangerous warning to writers and journalists, suggesting that their words could lead to prolonged legal battles, financial strain, emotional distress, and possible imprisonment,” said Sabrina Tucci of PEN International. The hearing in Rome is due to start at 2:00 pm (1200 GMT).

The case revolves around comments Saviano made on a political TV chat show following the death in a shipwreck of a six-month-old baby from Guinea.

The baby, Joseph, had been one of 111 migrants rescued by the Open Arms charity ship. He died before he could receive medical attention. In footage shot by rescuers and shown to Saviano on the show, the baby’s mother can be heard weeping “Where’s my baby? Help, I lose my baby!”

A visibly emotional Saviano then blasted Meloni — the leader of the post-Fascist Brothers of Italy party, at the time a small opposition movement — and Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrant League party. “I just want to say to Meloni, and Salvini: ‘You bastards! How could you?’” Saviano said on the show.

The year before, Meloni had said charity rescue ships “should be sunk”, while Salvini, as interior minister that same year, blocked such vessels from docking in Italian ports.

After taking office in October 2022, Meloni’s government introduced a law to limit the activities of charity rescue ships.

Almost 140,000 migrants have arrived on Italy’s shores so far this year, up from more than 74,000 in the same period last year, according to the interior ministry.

The majority are picked up by the coastguard, with around five percent rescued by NGO ships, the government says.

Saviano, who lives under police protection due to threats from the Naples Camorra mafia, has condemned what he says is an unequal fight between him and the top politician in the land.

Meloni’s lawyers have argued that in suing Saviano she is simply defending her reputation after being “insulted” on national television. The verdict comes against a backdrop of increased tensions between Meloni’s government and the judiciary.

She led criticism earlier this month against a judge who ruled a new migrant decree from the government was unconstitutional and contrary to European law. “The controversies of recent weeks have certainly not reassured us,” Saviano’s lawyer, Antonio Nobile, told AFP on Wednesday.

Salvini — now deputy prime minister in Meloni’s government — has joined the case as a civil party seeking damages.

He has also filed a separate defamation suit against Saviano for calling him the “minister of the criminal underworld” in a social media post in 2018. The case is still ongoing.

Italy ranked 41st in the 2023 world press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, up from 58th in 2022.__Daily Times