Speech by Marilù Mastrogiovanni (Ossigeno) at the webinair held on March 8 organized by Media Defence with the IWMF and the Colombia Foundation for Press Freedom on gender-based violence in the world of information
OSSIGENO 17 march 2022 – Below we publish the speech given on March 8, 2022 by the journalist Marilù Mastriogiovanni, who represented Ossigeno per l’Informazione at the webinar organized by the international organization Media Defence, together with IWMF (International Women Media Foundation) to celebrate the International Women’s Day with a look at gender issues in threats to information women workers. .
Moderator of the debate was Jeannette Smith of Media Defence connected from London. In addition to Marilù Mastrogiovanni, connected from Bari (Italy), the following took part: from Colombia, Maria Paula Martinez Concha of FLIP (Colombia foundation for press freedom), and Ela Stapley, of IWMF connected from England
Maria Paula Martinez, professor of “digital narratives” at the “Ceper-Center for Journalism Studies” of the University of the Andes, analyzed the macho component underlying the threats to journalists who are targets, especially online, of violent verbal attacks , the so-called hate speech, if not OF real media campaigns aimed at denigrating them as women in order to demolish them professionally.
Ela Stapley, consultant for the International women media foundation and founder of Siskin Labs, a consulting firm specializing in online safety for newsrooms and freelance individuals, illustrated the activities that her organization puts in place to promote the work of women reporters, to defend and support them.
by Marilù Mastrogiovanni – I will focus my speech on threats to women journalists as an expression of gender-based violence and on the need for this type of gender-based violence to be recognized also at the judicial level so that female journalists can obtain justice and compensation for damage. I will talk about my personal experience and broaden the analysis to the national context, also making some proposals.
First of all, I want to say that what happened to me happens to many women journalists in Italy. It also happened to Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta. She too had been subject to offensive caricatures that dehumanized her, she had been muddied in social media and she also suffered incendiary attacks. Maltese colleagues told us about her ordeal during the Forum of Mediterranean Women Journalists that I founded seven years ago and which is a free space to enhance the talents of women journalists and denounce discrimination, sexism, gender threats, even online.
In threats to women journalists there is always a gender specificity that has to do with the female body: the desire to annihilate it, subdue it, and dominate it.
Women are always questioned professionally, starting from their gender. At the Forum, we hear from the spirited voices of colleagues, that this happens in all cultures, in all countries. And it is the patriarchal culture that like the mafia culture crosses all cultures: that of annihilating and subjugating women as women.
This year, thanks to the Global Media Defense Fund (GMDF) of UNESCO, together with Ossigeno per l’informazione, the Forum of Mediterranean Women Journalists will try to monitor gender-based threats and then attempt to change the patriarchal culture which is at the basis of the threats, by changing the language and pushing media to use ungendered language. But we need more funds because we cannot analyze all the threats against women journalists bearing in mind that the first rule of journalism is “if you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist”.
The dynamics I have described here are the same all across Europe; it’s a European emergency. In Europe, Ossigeno per l’Informazione (Oxygen for Information) is the only independent observatory that conducts direct, continuous monitoring – based on fact-checking – of threats made to journalists, bloggers and other media workers to intimidate them because of their activities and to limit press freedom and free expression. But the threats identified by Ossigeno are just the tip of the iceberg because a large number of them is not reported and because the observatory has very limited resources and is able to cover only a portion of the field of observation. Due to the rigorous methodology it uses and the ability to detect episodes never reported by the media, Ossigeno per l’Informazione data are also casting light on what happens in other European countries. Its activity is well known to the Representative for Freedom of the Media and her office, which over the past ten years has repeatedly used Ossigeno’s documentation to request explanations from the Italian Government.
But, please, let’s look at the data:
According to Oxygen for information: last year three hundred and eighty four (384) journalists were threatened, of whom 27%, i.e., 105, were women.
Do you remember? “if you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist”. Well, the Italian Ministry of the Interior’s “Observatory of threatened journalists” published its own data: 156 cases in 9 months (1/3 from the web).
But according to the Platform to Promote the Protection and Safety of Journalists of the Council of Europe there were just 201 threats in Europe, of which only 11 in Italy.
In this way threats disappear. Threats to journalists are not a big problem, the phenomenon of gender-based violence towards women journalists disappears and therefore the problem of threats to journalists and the phenomenon of gender-based violence towards women journalists are successfully solved.
Now, if I can talk five more minutes, I’d like to talk about “vexatious lawsuits” which are a growing phenomenon. Just the spectre of a claim for damages is enough to paralyse many journalists: the so-called “chilling effect”. According to the Italian Ministry of Justice data, analysed by “Ossigeno per l’Informazione” (Oxygen for Information), ninety per cent of the libel lawsuits did not end up in a trial. That means that they were frivolous and that they were made with the intention of gagging journalists and forcing them to bow down, not to write, not to delve deeper.
Nevertheless, a mistake can become very costly for a journalist, and may even end up in a prison sentence. Every year in Italy about one hundred fifty journalists are sentenced.
Threats towards journalists and even criminal sentences are on the increase. The Italian Parliament could discuss the numerous legal proposals to eliminate prison sentences for ‘opinion crimes’ and stem the intimidating lawsuits, but it doesn’t do so.
Statistics show that it is the politicians themselves who often initiate the more frivolous lawsuits. This suggests that a law that could increase the level of democracy in Italy doesn’t suit our rulers; that it isn’t convenient for politicians to have free journalists.
I have been the victim of at least 100 vexatious lawsuits – and no convictions. I endured a criminal trial which lasted eleven years and I was acquitted at the request of the Public Prosecutor because everything I had reported was true. I had to defend myself, at great personal cost, while those who sued me did not pay anything. Threatening journalists doesn’t cost anything. It’s free. And so, from their point of view, it’s worth using this instrument.
This is why I was among the first group of signatories of a request sent to the President of the Italian Republic to change the existing law, in order to curb frivolous lawsuits and eliminate prison for journalists. The proposal is called “Io non sto zitta” that means “I won’t keep silent”.
My problem, like that of many other colleagues, is that, even if we are precarious – sorry, I mean freelance – we refuse to bend. For me, journalism is either ethical or it’s not journalism.
Three years ago a big holding company asked me to pay two hundred thousand euro within fifteen days or they would sue me. In Italy you can do this. It costs nothing and so they do it. This happened after I had written that the holding company was giving work to mafiosi, in the waste sector. They sued me with several lawsuits filed in various public prosecutors’ offices. They requested the seizure of my newspaper. The seizure of a newspaper in Italy is prohibited by the Constitutional Charter, yet a judge went ahead and seized the newspaper for 45 days. Then, the holding company’s activity was suspended by the State because it was considered to be related to the mafia. But I was sent to a trial for summary judgement like a murderer caught in the act with blood-stained hands.
Eventually I was acquitted.
But I suffered several threats. Once I found my dog beaten to death in my garden. I could tell you about the night when someone set fire to the back of my house while my family and I were sleeping. Moments of pure terror. I could tell you about when a mafioso came to the office to tell me that his only goal in life was to follow me and take pictures in order to record everything I was doing.
I received online threats also.
A politician, an elected representative of my own town, wrote on Facebook that he would come and get me. At the time, I had published an investigation on how a boss of a local mafia, the “Sacra Corona Unita”, the mafia of Salento, a region in Puglia, laundered drug money through apparently clean companies. That politician was the right-hand man of that mafia boss and was elected in the mayor’s party. I had evidence and I wrote about it. He threatened me by saying “Slut, tell me where you are, I’m coming to get you”. Because, don’t forget, a free woman is, first and foremost, always a slut. The police arrived to protect me. But on Facebook the boss’s friends continued their onslaught.
When the boss was killed (shot by Kalashnikov) his friends on Facebook called him “a lion, a hero” while I was “infamous, a slut”. They also posted these comments on the Facebook page of the mayor of my town, and he did not see fit to remove them. It seems the mayor was also happy to allow posters on walls claiming that I was muddying the good name of our town and asking citizens to react against me. He didn’t ask them to react against the mafia, but against the journalist who had denounced the mafia. Then the mayor’s election committee put up other posters depicting me buried in a pit.
There were other threats; two years ago, I received two “e-mail bombing” attacks. In a few seconds, I received 4,000 e-mails with the phrases “death is coming”, and “you have to be quiet, infamous”.
An “infamous individual” for the mafia is a person who has betrayed them, who speaks out, who is not part of the mafia organization which, for them, is the real State. Infamous individuals have to be eliminated.
In Italy, 21 journalists are under police protection, because of the mafia threats.
I had to move two hundred kms away from my home after someone set fire to it at night. I still have protection only when I go back to my hometown.
And yet I feel a lucky person. Many of you may wonder why I say this. I’m lucky because I own my destiny and I have no masters. I have founded my little publishing house and created the Forum of Mediterranean Women Journalists to help other investigative women journalists to lift up their heads. And I can decide in conscience to go on. We are a cooperative of journalists and we are the owners of our own newspaper but, of course, with enormous effort and great fear. Because I am afraid, I am so afraid. But this doesn’t prevent me from continuing to do my job to the fullest. This is what courage is: to go on, despite the fear.
Do not believe those who say that they have no fear. We need fear in order to be cautious and careful.