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Italy's prime minister sues journalist for defamation

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Italian journalist Roberto Saviano has lived under police protection since 2006 following death threats for his book, "Gomorrah." It's about the Neapolitan mafia. Now the government providing him that protection is putting him on trial. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports that Giorgia Meloni, Italy's new hard-right prime minister, is suing Saviano for defamation.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: In December 2020, Saviano appeared on a current events TV show that was reporting on the delayed response by Italian authorities to shipwrecked migrants in the Mediterranean. He was shown a video shot a few weeks earlier on board the NGO ship Open Arms during a dramatic rescue mission. A young woman from Guinea was crying desperately.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I lose my baby. Why me? Why my baby?

POGGIOLI: The woman's 6-month-old baby was ultimately rescued along with another 110 migrants, but he died before reaching shore. In the TV studio, Saviano was visibly angered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERTO SAVIANO: (Through interpreter) All you can say is, bastards, how could you? To Meloni and Salvini. Bastards, how is it possible, all this suffering? OK. They've got a different policy. They're against welcoming migrants. But not in an emergency in the middle of the sea.

POGGIOLI: When she was in opposition, Giorgia Meloni claimed that under the law of the sea, illegal migrants do not have a right to be rescued while in Italian waters. Matteo Salvini is currently on trial for having blocked rescued migrants from disembarking and holding them in dire conditions when he was interior minister in 2019. Meloni is now prime minister. Salvini is her deputy and has joined Meloni in suing Saviano for calling them bastards. If found guilty, Saviano could face up to three years in jail. Following a first brief hearing last month, Saviano spoke outside the courthouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAVIANO: (Through interpreter) I'm on trial for having sharply criticized Giorgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini, whom I considered those most responsible for the constant political propaganda waged against the most desperate human beings, those most vulnerable and unable to defend themselves, refugees.

POGGIOLI: Journalists and writers in Italy and beyond have expressed solidarity with Saviano. Lawyer Antonio Nobile has represented him for over a decade.

ANTONIO NOBILE: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: He points out that Italy has repeatedly delayed ratification of a European Union directive that calls for the elimination of prison sentences in defamation cases against journalists, human rights defenders, as well as researchers and academics. And PEN International, the writers association that defends freedom of expression, sent an open letter to Prime Minister Meloni urging her to drop the case against Saviano. The latest charges, it added, are sadly representative of a worrying trend in Italy, where journalists and writers work in the knowledge they might be sued and imprisoned for what they say or what they write. In an interview with the daily Corriere della Sera last month, Meloni said she has no intention of dropping the lawsuit now that she's prime minister. And she's convinced the case will be treated impartially. Lawyer Antonio Nobile is skeptical.

NOBILE: (Through interpreter) By not dropping the case, Meloni is requiring the judge to rule if and how extensively a prime minister can be criticized. We're in a situation where the executive is putting intense pressure on the judiciary.

POGGIOLI: Saviano has given his lawyer instructions not to limit himself to a narrow defense of freedom of speech and intends to call numerous politicians as witnesses.

NOBILE: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: Nobile says Saviano wants to turn his trial for defamation into a trial against the migration policies implemented by all recent Italian governments. The next hearing is December 12. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.