The Italian anti-mafia writer Roberto Saviano has been found guilty of libelling the prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, and fined €1,000 (£865) for calling her “a bastard” over her migration policies.
Supporters of the author criticised the verdict, saying it highlighted Italy’s draconian defamation laws and warned of a “chilling effect” on the media.
“This verdict underscores the challenges writers and journalists face in their pursuit of free expression and reminds us of the critical importance of defending writers’ rights and freedom of speech – in Italy and beyond,” said Sabrina Tucci, a spokesperson for the global writers’ association Pen.
Calling on Italy to repeal all its criminal libel laws, she added: “Criminalising defamation has a chilling effect and undermines freedom of expression. If anything, under international law, public officials must tolerate more criticism than private individuals.”
A Rome court found Saviano guilty on Thursday and imposed the fine, which his defence lawyer, Antonio Nobile, said he would not have to pay as it was part of a suspended sentence. The prosecution had asked for a €10,000 penalty.
Saviano would appeal against the ruling, Nobile told Reuters.
The case dates back to a TV interview in December 2020 in which Saviano, author of the bestselling book Gomorrah, castigated Meloni and her fellow far-right leader Matteo Salvini over their vitriol towards charity-run ships rescuing people in the Mediterranean.
Asked to comment on the death of a six-month-old baby from Guinea in a shipwreck, Saviano said: “All the bullshit [said about NGOs], sea taxis, cruises [for migrants]. All I can say is: bastards, how could you? Meloni, Salvini: bastards.”
At the time, Meloni, whose government came to power last October, described the high-profile author and journalist as a “serial hater”, adding that she was “sick of witnessing this disgusting profiteering”.
Saviano has had libel cases brought against him by two other current government ministers, including Salvini, the deputy prime minister and former interior minister who sued the author in 2018 after he referred to him as “il ministro della mala vita” – which roughly means “minister of the criminal underworld” – in a post on social media. The case is continuing.
In May this year, Saviano won a civil defamation case brought in 2020 by Gennaro Sangiuliano, the culture minister in Meloni’s government.
Defamation is punishable in Italy with prison terms of between six months and three years, although fines are more widespread. Italy’s highest court has previously urged lawmakers to rewrite the legislation, arguing that prison time in such cases is unconstitutional.
In 2022, Italy ranked 58th in the Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index.
Since becoming prime minister, Meloni has sued journalists at the left-wing newspaper Domani, while the finance minister, Giancarlo Giorgetti, recently said he would also sue the outlet over a story. Journalists in Italy regularly receive threats of legal action from members of Meloni’s government.
“However, I don’t think life for journalists has got any worse [under her government] as there has always been pressure from all governments and cabinets,” said Gianni Riotta, the director of the school of journalism at Rome’s Luiss University. “Journalists should be more aware, especially on social media … It is always better never to make personal insults. On the other hand, politicians have to accept that a public figure is a public figure.”
Reuters contributed to this report
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