Guardians of truth... Italy's reporters who defy the mafia
Italian crime is a €150bn industry - and some brave journalists are fighting back, writes Paddy Agnew
When Italians turned on TV to watch the news on November 17 last year, they were in for an ugly surprise. First up on prime-time news was dramatic footage of a RAI reporter having his nose broken by a vicious head-butt during a report on a hotly contested local election in Ostia, near Rome.
The man who head-butted the journalist was Roberto Spada, member of a powerful local crime family in Ostia, the Roman sea port that sits on the coast approximately 40km from the Eternal City. Journalist Daniele Piervincenzi had asked Spada about his family's alleged links to the hardline neo-fascist movement Casapound. By way of response, Spada not only attacked Piervincenzi, but, armed with a tyre iron, he also ran after both the reporter and his cameraman, hitting both of them.
In June of this year, Spada received a six-year prison sentence for the violent aggression. To some extent, justice was done. However, his attack on Piervincenzi, seen on prime time news bulletins in millions of Italian homes, was an uncomfortable reminder of the dangers confronted by Italian journalists who investigate organised crime.
This year, in a surprise move, the US news magazine Time named a number of journalists as its Person Of The Year, praising their courage in the face of violence, oppression, and indeed accusations of "fake news".
Best known among those honoured with a Time cover was the Saudi Arabian dissident and Washington Post writer, Jamal Khashoggi, the man allegedly murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 in a killing believed to have been orchestrated by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Time calls Khashoggi and the others "Guardians", journalists who fight to report fairly in the face of often terrifying intimidation that sometimes claims their lives. The Ostia story, however, is a reminder that Italy, too, has its "Guardians", journalists who daily report on the activity of Italy's estimated €150bn organised crime industry. According to the parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission, 2,200 Italian journalists have been threatened by organised crime in the last decade.
Perhaps the best known such Italian journalist and writer is Roberto Saviano, author of the book and subsequent TV series Gomorrah, an investigation into the murky world of the camorra in Naples. During an anti-mafia demonstration in Casal di Principe, near Naples in 2006, Saviano had the temerity to attack one of the most powerful camorra families, the "Casalesi", screaming at them to "get out of this territory".
That unheard of public attack, that defiant insolence, earned him the undying enmity of the Casalesi who very quickly let it be known that they wanted to kill him. When Saviano followed that up by attending many sessions of the so-called Spartacus trial, a 10-year trial which concluded in 2008 with life sentences for 16 Casalesi "bosses", his fate was sealed.
Since then, he has lived under 24-hour police protection. For him and other public figures in protection, this simply means an end to freedom of spontaneous movement. Everything has to be planned, agreed and organised with the "guardian angels".
Last summer, I was at a event in Rome featuring the work of Irish novelist and writer Colm Toibin. Just as proceedings were getting under way, a man with two handlers was suddenly rushed in and seated in a reserved seat in the front row. As I recognised Saviano's shaven head, I realised why heavy dude security guards had been on hand earlier that evening.
At the private dinner afterwards, his guardian angels hovered discreetly in the background as we ate on the terrace, chatting away cheerfully to Saviano, all the while pretending that he was just another guest. He had arrived late and he was the first to leave. That is the way his guardian angels wanted it.
That dinner reminded me of another one, some years earlier in Genoa, where my host was investigating magistrate Raffaele Cantone. Now the thing about Cantone is that he was one of the public prosecutors at the Spartacus trial, someone who is probably even more loathed by the Casalesi than Saviano.
We had taken part in a panel discussion/public debate that night in the Genoa port area. Afterwards, as we walked around the harbour to a nearby restaurant, one policeman walked in front of us, two beside us, while the police escort car crept along behind us at a crawl. Such a phalanx makes those unused to it feel distinctly uncomfortable, while it clearly makes spontaneous socialising difficult.
Another person who knows all about the difficulties of life under police protection is journalist Federica Angeli. Her story is linked to that of Daniele Piervincenzi, the RAI journalist who had his nose broken during the Ostia local elections. Angeli, who works for Rome daily, La Repubblica, actually lives in Ostia, from where in 2013 she did a bit of digging around for an investigative piece on the seaside resort.
Being on the coast and close to Rome, Ostia is obviously a favourite with Roman day trippers, in search of sun, sand and a good lunch in a fish restaurant. To have the licence on a "stabilimento" (private beach cum restaurant) in Ostia can prove very lucrative.
Angeli discovered that the licence on one stabilimento in the space of five days had been taken from the people who had run it for years and instead handed over to the infamous Spada family. Inevitably, she smelled a rat.
Bravely, she and a cameraman went to interview the Spada family. Armando Spada took her into a room where he kept her for two hours, asking her what she actually wanted of him, while at the same time threateningly pointing out that he knew all three of her young children.
Spada also demanded that she hand over the tape of the interview she had just conducted. By sleight of hand, she managed to hold on to her interview but she was left with little doubt that the Spada family did not wish her well. Crucially, however, her investigative work eventually aroused the interest of public prosecutors.
Some months later in July 2013, an incident happened that was to forever change her life and that of her husband and children. On the night of July 15/16, she was alarmed by the sound of gun shots and screaming in the street below her apartment.
She stepped out on to her balcony to see what was happening. Down below, people were scrambling to get out of the way, caught up in a (botched) double hit job as exponents of the Spada and Freciani families fought one another on the street. Seeing people on their balconies, the mafiosi shouted up that "the show" was over, urging the citizens to go back inside and to remember that they had "seen nothing".
While people made themselves scarce, Angeli stood her ground, watching the drama and recognising some of its protagonists. Then, despite the protests of her husband, she made the decision to testify to police about what she had seen, despite the obvious serious implications.
Within hours, the Prefect of Rome confirmed the seriousness of her choice when he rang to tell her that she was to be given police protection because, as he put it, in 40 years no one from Ostia had ever given evidence against the Spada family:
"Living under police protection is like life under house arrest. I can do nothing on my own, I cannot even step out on to my own balcony," Angeli has said, expressing a sentiment familiar to all her colleagues in the same position.
Over the years, however, she has received a variety of threats from mafiosi, sometimes in person, sometimes on Facebook and once on a live TV show (to the horror and indignation of the studio audience).
On one occasion, a member of the Spada family, seeing her eight-year-old son Lorenzo standing on the apartment balcony, shouted up at him, making the sign of the cross to him.
Despite the threats, Federica Angeli continues to live in Ostia. Furthermore, last February she gave evidence against the Spada family in a trial in Rome - which, in a show of solidarity, was attended not only by the editor of La Repubblica, Mario Calabresi, but also by Rome's mayor, Virginia Raggi.
Even if mafia threats have sometimes ended up with the assassination of the particular journalist, 11 in the post-war period, more often nowadays, the threats are of a different kind.
Giuseppe Baldassarre, another of the contemporary Italian "Guardians" and someone who has investigated the affairs of the 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia, today the most powerful mafia in Italy, puts it this way: "A threat against you can assume a thousand different expressions... Sometimes, it is along the lines of 'If you don't stop writing that s**t, then I'll kill you' or it can be a phone call, a letter and more recently something filed on social media.
"Often, you receive veiled threats from 'third persons'. It could be a colleague, a lawyer, even a friend who will tell you to 'go easy', 'just some advice for your own good'... They will tell you to 'think of your family'..." (from an interview with journalist Giulia Zuddas).
Journalists like Baldassarre, Angeli, Saviano and others are obviously in a minority. In the past, there were newspapers, especially in southern Italy, where the word ''mafia'' never even appeared in print.
Claudio Fava, a former vice-president of the Anti-Mafia Commission and son of activist Pippo Fava, killed by the Sicilian Mafia in Catania in 1984, has claimed that this is changing:
"The most authentic legacy left by those 11 dead... is this silent and determined generation of younger reporters, that is certainly the most precious thing."
Here's hoping he is right.