Ossigeno in Brussels. How to convince the sceptics

The following speech was delivered by Alberto Spampinato, director of Ossigeno on Tuesday 6th November 2018, at the Italian Cultural Institute in Brussels, at a roundtable dealing with journalists threatened in Italy, France and Belgium. Reporters from these three countries (for Italy, Federica Angeli) contributed their testimony.

We are constantly searching for information to know what is happening around us. We do it to orient ourselves, to help form our opinions and to make choices.

It is an irrepressible need for every human being and is recognized as a fundamental right.

To get to know the most important facts, we rely on newspapers, on radio and television or on the web. We rely on the work of journalists. Since they have the task of professionally meeting this social need, we expect them to give us even the most uncomfortable and difficult to publish news; news that risks their putting themselves up against powerful and vindictive people and institutions, even against criminals who can react violently .

We do well to demand it. But we should also acknowledge the consequences and try to understand what obstacles our indomitable journalists must overcome to perform such difficult tasks. We should also ask ourselves how we could help them, equip them better and protect them so they can face difficult missions and not succumb. This effort to understand, to put ourselves in their shoes, we almost never do and this is wrong. We only discuss it for a few days, after another journalist has been killed, or threatened with death and fears for his or her life. We discuss it only on the wave of an emergency when there is not, nor can there be, that analytical coldness necessary to discuss and find the right answers.

In the last ten years it has always been like this while 1010 journalists were killed in the world, of which 80 only in the last 12 months, and only 7 per cent of the 1010 were war or foreign correspondents (according to UNESCO statistics) ).

Now maybe something is changing, since in recent months, three journalists were murdered one after the other, in three countries of our peaceful Europe. Two were certainly killed because of the inconvenient work they did while for the third the causes are still to be determined. These deaths stirred the political conscience of Europe and there is now widespread attention. This will produce good results if – before interest wanes again – the right lesson can be drawn from what happened. We, therefore, must play our part by stating what we have learned from these latest murders.

In my view those deaths could and should have been avoided. That is if Daphne Caruana Galicia and Jan Kuciak had been in Italy, most likely they would have been saved from the murderous rage, because in Italy there is an effective system of protection of journalists which has already saved the lives of many journalists. This system is well-established and is one of the main reasons why, since 1993, no journalist has been killed in Italy. This system of protection should be studied and possibly replicated, in whole or in part, in other countries that do not yet have it and are aware of journalists threatened only after their deaths. Countries that join the European Union, the Council of Europe and the United Nations have assumed the obligation to adopt suitable protection measures following the established standards but many still do not respect their commitment.

I think we could convince even the most recalcitrant by demonstrating with undeniable evidence that the threats are frequent and numerous even in their own countries. The facts can be documented with an objective monitoring that in addition to demonstrating in every country how many journalists suffer every year threats because of their work, can also suggest which laws and procedures must be updated in each country.

In Italy we have successfully tested this monitoring for ten years, developing a rigorous method of detection, classification and analysis that could be replicated. We have shown, inter alia, that this kind of monitoring is already, in itself, a system of protection, the foundation of every security system for journalists in danger. By applying its method of observation, Ossigeno per l’Informazione publicly listed the names of threatened journalists, a list that now includes 3721 names along with the history of each. Ossigeno has also demonstrated that there are many more journalists threatened in Italy than those listed; at least 15 times more. This list has convinced even the most sceptical. The huge number of threatened individuals has shown how big the problem is and how concealed it is in Italy. Certainly in Italy it is less so than in all the other countries, none of which produces lists of threatened journalists nor conducts monitoring comparable to the reliability of the Italian one.

The monitoring of Ossigeno, inter alia, has shown how and why the law regarding defamation in print must be changed. It showed it with incontrovertible statistics that each year in Italy five thousand journalists are sued vexatiously for libel , almost always for intimidatory purposes. They are therefore usually acquitted in the investigative phase, whereas 450 journalists are found guilty and are condemned in first instance: 295 of them have to pay fines, the remaining 155 sentenced to prison terms for a total of 103 years. I want to emphasize that these figures refer to every single year and have the stamp of approval from the Ministry of Justice.

In recent days, evaluating these results, the UNESCO Director for Media said that Italy and Ossigeno per l’Informazione are world leaders in the field of monitoring threats to journalists. The UN Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic added a similar appreciation.

This appreciation encourages us to continue the collection and dissemination of data in Italy and to make every effort to test our method of monitoring in other countries because in the European context and in such a porous world the freedom of information can not be saved in one country only.

At present in Italy, according to the latest data from the Ministry of the Interior, eighteen journalists who have been subjected to death threats live with armed police protection , some for many years. One of them is Federica Angeli who is with us tonight. She will be able to confirm if our monitoring, as I believe, has helped her to resist the very serious threats she has suffered and helped her to avoid the isolation and the blackout that usually surrounds journalists under attack weakening them.

There are also French and Belgian journalists who have been threatened with us tonight. It is the first time that we have been able to bring together journalists from three European countries who have suffered threats and who can demonstrate with their direct experience how this problem is real, current, extensive and largely unopposed.

I hope that this meeting of ours will attract widespread attention throughout Europe and mark the beginning of a more concrete phase of commitment to liberate information from the masked censorship that is now a real problem for our democracies.

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