Media Capture in Italy by violence and intimidation: the proof

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by Alberto Spampinato

Over the past ten years Ossigeno per l’Informazione (Oxygen for Information) has documented several thousand threats and incidents of intimidation suffered by journalists in Italy, but that is only the tip.of the iceberg. Ossigeno’s founder and president, Alberto Spampinato, presents this dossier of evidence showing the extent of ’media capture’ in Italy through violence, intimidation and unjust laws that impose severe constraints on the country’s newspapers and other media.

Since 2006 the Italian NGO Ossigeno per l’Informazione (Oxygen for Information) has closely documented more than three thousand verified cases of threats and incidents of intimidation suffered by journalists in Italy. Many of these cases could be prevented by strict laws and better law-enforcement practices. Some improvements to Italy’s very harsh laws on libel and defamation, which are often used against journalists, have been promised for several years, but have still not yet been introduced. Unfortunately the political will is lacking. And it is difficult to change the situation because these deep-seated problems are not yet the subject of proper public debate, and voters do not know or care much about them.

Italy presents a serious case of media capture in several different ways.

First of all, a major problem of conflict of interest arises because leading Italian politicians have direct interest in, and control of, media and publishing. This problem became internationally famous twenty years ago when Silvio Berlusconi was Italy’s prime minister for about ten years. His media empire included a large part of the commercial television market as well as magazines and a national newspaper (Il Giornale, owned by his brother) . And he exerted dominant control of the main public TV channels of RAI, the national public broadcaster. Berlusconi misused this extraordinary control over the Italian media scene to largely set the news agenda in his own way. In particular, he was able to ensure that Italian voters were never told the full story about the multiple criminal cases brought by Italian prosecutors against the prime minister – included charges of sex with under-age girls, corruption and tax evasion on a large scale. The Economist newspaper, based in London, reported the known facts about the alleged wrongdoing in detail under the headline “Unfit to govern Italy”.

Mr Berlusconi brought a lawsuit against The Economist and lost. In the end he was ordered to do a period of community service, but he was never sent to jail. And many of the charges against him have either lapsed because of the statute of limitations, or have never been resolved.

Recently Ossigeno sent a file of evidence on the ongoing issue of inadequately regulated conflicts of interest to the Geneva Human Rights Council , which is now considering various human rights issues in Italy as part of the process called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), to which every UN member state is subjected once every four years. In that note we said that another important unfilled commitment concerns the governance of the public broadcasting system, which is still subject to political control by the government and the parties that make up the parliamentary majority. In 2015, contrary to Italy’s commitment under international law, the government parties strengthened their control over TV and radio with a new law. The negative effects on media pluralism, and the partisan TV reporting of politics and elections are plain to see.

Organised crime – the mafia – also exerts powerful controls over media reporting, as has been well documented by experts. And that influence is now increasing due to the economic crisis and the severe difficulties of the media and publishing sector. On this issue Ossigeno recently led a fact-finding mission together with its international partners of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF). The results were published in in the report “Much mafia, little news” that you can read in the English section of Ossigeno website.

This malign mafia influence shows itself in various ways. Firstly it means that systematic pressures and threats against the media are not reported. Secondly, many important news developments, which are of obvious public interest, are effectively censored. Thirdly, the high level of intimidation and threats – aimed at big media and small media alike, include all who strive to faithfully do thier job as journalists – means that those who dare to publish information that is unwelcome to the powerful and to criminals are forced to live in anxiety, or fear of being targeted either by violence or else the threat of severe damage to their livelihoods.

The situation is indeed dramatic. For the past several years as many as twenty journalists have had to be protected round the clock by police because of death threats. Currently some 167 others are receiving a lesser level of police protection. Many hundreds more are also at risk but have no protection at all, and often feel isolated and defenceless. It must be remembered that the mafia carries out its lucrative business with the complicity of politicians and business people. The worst kind of pressure is of course the physical threats, intimidation and reprisals that affect many Italian newspapers, as well as malicious and spurious libel lawsuits with massive claim of compensation for “damage to reputation”. In Italy that is a real scourge because of the punitive legislation which puts media operators at an unfair disadvantage under the law.

Ossigeno works to expose this reality and to assist victims. The climate of intimidation represents an existential threat to freedom of the press. Until this deep-rooted problem is overcome we believe there will be no hope of seeing other serious problems for Italian democracy resolved either.

OSSIGENO’s MONITORING OF THREATS TO JOURNALISTS: AN OVERVIEW

Before examining the data I must explain how it is obtained. Ossigeno per l’Informazione is the only independent non-governmental observatory in Europe that for ten years has been conducting continuous monitoring of threats to journalists, bloggers and other information workers. Our monitoring is based on direct observation and recording of the phenomenon through a scientific method that we ourselved developed and which is recognised by national and international institutions. The handbook on Ossigeno’s method in english can be downloaded here.

Between January 2006 and June 2019 Ossigeno has documented and revealed details of as many as 3,921 certified threats and cases of intimidation, of which 137 were recorded in the first six months of this year. Every episode made public by Ossigeno has been confirmed through our rigorous fact checking process.

Ossigeno has also obtained official Italian government statistics which reveal that in Italy each year there are on average some 5.900 new criminal allegations for libel, and more than 90 percent of them are found to be baseless and are dismissed by judges in court. Neverthless each year some 155 people (mostly journalists) are found guilty and sentenced to jail terms amounting in all to over 100 years. The quality and value of Ossigeno’s work is well known to the Offie of the Representative for Freedom of the Media of the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Vienna, which has often used Ossigeno’s documentation to raise urgent cases and request explanations and remedies from the Italian Government.

Thanks to the scientific methodology used and this ability to detect episodes never reported by the media, Ossigeno data also provide an important indication of how, in other European countries too, the freedom of expression and information may be repressed and limited in ways that are not yet properly understood.

THE LATEST DATA

YEAR 2019 – In the first 6 months of 2019 Ossigeno per l’Informazione verified and reported more than one threat per day: we received informatoin about 249 threats (on average 1.4 per day). Of those we were able to verify 137 as definite, while the rest were classified as probables because of a lack of indisputable evidence.

YEAR 2018 – During 2018 Ossigeno per l’Informazione reported 482 serious attacks in Italy against 959 media workers. Only 270 of those episodes could be verified. The names names were added to the Table of Threatened and to the main Counter of Threats. All the other 689 names were publicly signaled as victims of probable violations of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

TREND – The main reason for the wide variation in figures published from year to year is that the number of violations Ossigeno can verify depends crucially on the amount of funding we are able to collect to finance this highly intensive and skilled work. It muust be done by trained observers, some of whom are volunteers while others are paid..

ONLINE THREATS detected were 11% of the total.
Women account for 40 percent of recorded online threats.
Online attacks on women journalists were recorded in 7 different regions, and 71 percent occurred in just two of Italy’s southern regions: Lazio and Sicily.

TIP OF THE ICEBERG – From 2006 to 2018 Ossigeno has exposed 3,778 cases of intimidation and threats to media operators occurred in Italy. It is a huge number, yet it shows only the tip of the iceberg: to take account of the majority of such cases, which are below the surface, we estimate that the figures should be multiplied by as much as 15 times.

THE SUBMERGED PART – The great majority of incidents of threats and intimidation are not visible because so: many cases are not reported by the victims themselves; that is because of the high risk of reprisals against them if they speak out. To obtain information from those who face such threats it is necessary to gain their confidence and also to promote public solidarity toward them. The great majority of cases are never mentioned in regular newspaper reports or on the Internet. It remains an uphill task to collect the funds necessary to seek out so many violations and verify them. Ossigeno’s funding colmes exclusively from public donations and from grants for specific projects that we have received from public institutions. The consequence is that we are able to monitor only a small part of the whole area of Italy, and our focus shifts from year to year.

Ossigeno is convinced of the need to break down the wall of public indifference towards violence and abuses directed against journalists. Rhetorical denunciations have been ineffective. It is essential to document and make public as many violations as we can verifying each in a way that make it impossible to deny. The work is necessary. It must also be possible in any country where the rule of law is applied. Over the past ten years Ossigeno has demonstated beyond doubt the importance of this work and the scale of the challenge still ahead.

See the full list of names of those threatened online here.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION please see the website of the Centre for Freedom of the Media at the University of Sheffield.

Alberto Spampinato, president of Ossigeno per l’Informazione, gave this presentatoin on ’Media capture in Italy’ during the CFOM Panel session at the Sheffield Hallam University International Journalism Summer School on June 28, 2019.

Photo: Ossigeno per l’informazione