Journalists wiretapped in Italy. A scandal. How long will it remain on the front page?

Any more than the other major problems of press freedom that have appeared on the horizon and then left before being resolved?

by Alberto Spampinato and Giuseppe F. Mennella

OSSIGENO – April 9th 2021 – The scoop of Andrea Palladino published on April 2nd 2021 in the newspaper “Domani” informed us that in 2017 phone calls had been wiretapped of an unspecified number of Italian journalists who were documenting the trafficking of human beings and the activities of NGOs rescuing people from boats in distress in the Sicilian Channel. Moreover, those wiretaps were included by judges in the documents of a criminal case without the journalists themselves being investigated individually. We also learned that phone calls and the movements of some lawyers were monitored. In a few days these revelations have rightly assumed the dimensions of a great Italian scandal.

The concern is fully justified. Even if the investigating magistracy has not openly violated the professional secrecy guaranteed by the law to lawyers and (albeit much more weakly) to journalists on the secrecy of their trusted sources, this action has certainly neglected or scarcely considered this prerogative of professional secrecy, the only one recognized to those who conduct journalism.

The inspectors sent to the Trapani prosecutor’s office by the Italian minister of justice Cartabia will tell us what has been happening.

We hope their clarification will help put the muddled discussion of this issue back on track. The wave of comments so far, with a few exceptions, has contentiously oscillated between minimization and exaggeration of the facts.

These extremes are typical of the Italian public debate on violations of freedom of information, an issue on which absolute silence usually prevails, even in the face of obvious facts that deserve public attention and require the non-rhetorical intervention of the institutions.

This great silence and this passivity are interrupted episodically by large and short flare-ups, in the face of sensational cases like the one we are currently talking about of episodes that cry out for revenge, for which many “rent their garments” and promise decisive interventions. However after a while the problem loses its prominence without being solved and is no longer talked about, until the next flare-up of course, and usually without remembering the previous episodes.

“Abbassati giunco che il temporale passa”, says a Sicilian ancient proverb. (Keep your head down till the storm clears).

The issue was also addressed with this timid philosophy in 2012 when the journalist Alessandro Sallusti ended up under house arrest for 14 days and Italy was portrayed for as many days as a barbaric and illiberal country.

Similarly when dozens of journalists of the newspaper l’Unità were forced by an unjust law to pay the debts owed by their publisher in 2013. There were the same brief flashes of attention when it came to espouse the proposition (dear to Ossigeno) that legislative interventions are essential to stop the tide of complaints and unfounded lawsuits for libel and reduce the very high impunity for threats and intimidation to journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders.

Great promises, every time. Solemn commitments. But no solution. Bad business!

Unfortunately, unresolved problems become gangrenous like untreated sores. There is no point in hiding behind postponements, hypocrisy, tendentious data and political and media silence. Hiding diseases is not good for health as the story of the Covid infections finally teaches us.

So let’s ask ourselves: why aren’t such obvious remedies also applied when it comes to defending press freedom and punishing intimidation of journalists?

Perhaps because journalists – in spite of t their perception of themselves – are a weak category that over the years has further lost power, credibility, alliances and ability to react and so today is unable to fight this deadly battle with sufficient strength and determination.

Fortunately, the world is large and freedom of information is not a matter just for journalists. It’s about everyone. Therefore it is to be hoped that this noble flag will also be challenged by others: intellectuals, artists, writers, opinion formers, students and all those who believe that it is their inalienable right to collect information, disseminate and receive it, freely express opinions, have the opportunity to do so without any interference by power, without a Big Brother operating or any other intrusive device  to hinder, punish, and criminalize those who collect inconvenient truths and those who express unwelcome opinions.


Read also the comment of the lawyer Andrea Di Pietro

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