Italy. Journalist wiretapped with trojan spyware without being formally investigated

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Paolo Orofino was collecting news on judicial investigations of a chief prosecutor charged for corruption and transferred from the CSM

OSSIGENO 22nd February 2024 – In Calabria, the conversations between the 51 years old journalist Paolo Orofino, editor of the Quotidiano del Sud, and a magistrate who was under investigation for judicial corruption, were spied on for two months with Trojan malware secretly installed on the mobile phone of the journalist by order of the Salerno Prosecutor’s Office. The journalist discovered it by chance five years later, in January 2024, whilst consulting the documents of the trial in which those intercepts are cited. The journalist confirmed that he was not under investigation in the legal proceedings.

The Trojan malware made the mobile phone act as a  microphone. The legitimate use of this interception tool is permitted only for judicial investigations into very serious crimes. Such use of an un-investigated journalist’s mobile phone constitutes a violation of professional secrecy and damages his work and his sources.

THE CONTEXT – In 2019 the Salerno Prosecutor’s Office, responsible for investigations involving Calabrian magistrates, was investigating Eugenio Facciolla, the then chief prosecutor of Castrovillari in the province of Cosenza, who was under investigation at the time. At the end of December of that year Paolo Orofino met him for Christmas greetings. The informal meeting took place in the magistrate’s car in which a covert listening device had been installed.

In 2019 the magistrate was accused of corruption in judicial actions and the Disciplinary Commission of the CSM, on the proposal of the Minister of Justice Alfonso Bonafede, transferred him as a precautionary measure to the Civil Court of Potenza. He was subsequently acquitted of some of the charges and in 2023 the Italian Supreme Court asked for a new ruling from the CSM.

According to the Salerno prosecutor’s office, the journalist and the magistrate spoke about “some papers considered confidential”. The investigators, perhaps due to an incomplete transcription, believed among other things that they were ironically referring to the then Chief Prosecutor of Catanzaro Nicola Gratteri, calling him by the nickname ‘Cicciobello’. The reporter’s phone was tapped using Trojan malware to “monitor contacts and relationships between the two mentioned subjects”, without discovering anything.

From that moment Paolo Orofino was spied on for two months through the invasive malware whose use is generally reserved for investigations into crimes of terrorism, mafia, drug trafficking and even corruption in particularly serious cases.

The journalist knew that he had been intercepted in the car with the magistrate, but not that he had been spied on with Trojan malware. When he was called to testify before the Superior Council of the Magistracy he clarified, as other authoritative documents confirmed, that the nickname ‘Cicciobello’ did not refer to Nicola Gratteri, and that he had had a normal relationship  with Eugenio Facciolla, a legitimate relationship  between a journalist  and a chief prosecutor.

THE CRIMINAL LAWYERS ASSOCIATION – The coordinating body of the Calabrian Criminal Lawyers Association has adopted a position with a note in which it speaks of an attack by the investigative apparatus on freedom of information and of “almost total press silence” on the matter. Among other things, the note states: “Defensive shields are raised when the abuse of wiretapping is reported and the necessary “separation of careers” between prosecuting  offices and the media is invoked, while the abuses of the investigating authority against freedom of information go almost unnoticed “. The lawyers invite everyone to reflect on this. “If the legal profession is responsible for the role of “guardian  of rights”, journalists are assigned the task of being the “watchdog of democracy” (…). Paolo Orofino was intercepted “with the most powerful, invasive, indiscriminate spyware  that military technology has made available in the fight against the evils of society”.

PAOLO OROFINO, contacted by Ossigeno, said he was stunned and upset by the discovery that he had been spied on with the Trojan malware. However, he chose not to comment. It is not excluded that he could turn to the European Court of Human Rights to complain about the unjustified violation of his personal and professional confidentiality as a journalist, with an intercept that violated the confidentiality of his trusted sources thus compromising them.

HIS COLLEAGUES“The use of Trojan malware is in some cases provided for by law –, commented for Ossigeno the experienced journalist Massimo Razzi, who has worked for the newspapers La Repubblica, l’Unità and others and today  collaborates with the Quotidiano del Sud.

He was reminded of the  former chief prosecutor of Turin Armando Spataro. “It must always be used very carefully, very cautiously as it is reserved for very important specific cases – continued Massimo Razzi – putting Trojan spyware in the phone of a journalist, who is not under investigation, only serves to discover his relationships with sources and this is a serious violation of press freedom. In very serious situations it may be valid, in this specific case it was not necessary. Even if the investigators had deemed it necessary, they could have made sure to activate it only at the moments in which Paolo Orofino met the suspect Eugenio Facciolla in places that were already stuffed with spy bugs. They exaggerated under every aspect. Before installing spyware in the phone of a journalist who is not even under investigation, turning him into a walking microphone, they should think twice. And then not  do it.”

OSSIGENO per l’informazione expresses solidarity with Paolo Orofino with whom it has dealt with in the past for another story (read here). The use of invasive electronic interception tools such as Trojan malware has clear limitations that should never be exceeded, especially when used against journalists, who have the right to professional secrecy to keep their trusted  sources confidential, a right recognized by law. LT

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