Ever since Italy’s new right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni launched her new government, I have been monitoring the erosion of democracy in Italy. I have a trained eye; I have covered the erosion of the rule of law in Hungary and Poland over the last decade. It was clear to me that the far-right PM doesn’t love the free media because she has sued reputable journalists, including those from my newspaper Domani. But a police raid on our newsroom was not exactly what I was expecting. None of my colleagues were.

A ’surreal’ raid

It came as a shock on Friday March 3. “It was so surreal”, says Mattia Ferraresi, Domani’s managing editor. Police entered the newsroom with the unusual aim of seizing an article about Claudio Durigon, a member of Meloni’s government.

Before becoming a leading figure in the right-wing populist party Lega, Durigon was a crucial figure in Ugl, a right-wing trade union that supports Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and far-right governments. Although federal secretary of Lega, Matteo Salvini, supported him, Durigon had to resign from Mario Draghi’s 2021-2022 government because of scandals, one of which was about fascist links. But Meloni brought him back into government.

“Every time we write about him, Durigon sues us,” my colleague Nello Trocchia said. He has done this eight times.”

Trocchia and Giovanni Tizian, the authors of the sequestered article, are authoritative reporters covering collusion between politics and organised crime. Both are under police protection. You would therefore expect the authorities to safeguard their work. They came to seize it, instead. Durigon sued us because of that article, which he didn’t even attach to the lawsuit. The piece was publicly available online. Despite this, Mattia Ferraresi had to print out the article for the police.

When the police came, Tizian was on his way to the newsroom; Trocchia informed his colleague by phone: “Come, the police are here!”. Tizian’s first thought was to protect their sources: “Don’t let them touch our computers!”. 

‘New govt has ‘a problem with independent media’

“There was no need for the police to come into the newsroom and seize the article. This is intimidation,” said Ricardo Gutiérrez, general secretary of the European Federation of Journalists. But the police raid is not an isolated case. Meloni’s government has shown that it has a problem with independent media.

This is the second time Gutiérrez had to write in only a few months in support of Domani. Last autumn, he alerted the Council of Europe that PM Meloni had sued Domani for defamation. Although free media organisations, the EU Commission and the Consititutional Court have urged Italy to reform its defamation laws for years, not only has Meloni’s government refused to do so but is using criminal defamation trials as political leverage: Meloni has sued both intellectuals, such as Roberto Saviano, and journalists: my editor-in-chief, Stefano Feltri, and my colleague, Emiliano Fittipaldi, have been taken to court.

When I talked about this with Corinne Vella, Daphne Caruana Galizia’s sister, she immediately showed us solidarity. Meloni’s version of the story - that she sues journalists “as a citizen” - is the same excuse Malta’s Prime Minister used when he took Caruana Galizia’s family to court. Meloni is not a common citizen, she is the leading figure of the current government, with all the power that this entails. Think of the paradox: governments that are actively using SLAPPs (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) against journalists are the same ones that have to determine the fate of an upcoming EU law against SLAPPs. “And they are boycotting it.” Vella says. The EU Council is undermining the original proposal of “Daphne’s law”. I cannot help but think that on the freedom of information front, if one is attacked, we are all attacked.

Solidarity shown against intimidation

When Orbán’s regime in Hungary pushed independent newspapers towards closure, management changes or pauperization, Domani’s readers wrote to me asking to help out. A group of journalists and active citizens from Calitri, in southern Italy, took up a collection for Magyar Hang and Telex.

Corinne Vella and the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation stood by our side when solidarity was needed. And a whole range of media freedom organisations committed to help us defend independent journalism: Sielke Kelner from the Media Freedom Rapid Response started to report the Meloni government’s attacks against Domani, the European Federation of Journalists alerted the Council of Europe, Attila Mong from the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote a statement and wrote complaints to the Italian authorities.

The point is, Domani is a small but influential newspaper and I am sure we will not be intimidated. As a trade union at Domani, my colleagues and I also wrote: the government won’t silence us. But what about all the precarious journalists that investigate corruption, and what about freelancers? “Every time that Matteo Salvini sued me - and it has happened very often - I won the legal challenge,” Giovanni Tizian says. “But no one gave us back all the money we spent on lawyers. If I was a freelancer, I would have lost the equivalent of a year’s salary.”

Mobilising does work

Media freedom organisations supported Domani at the European level because Domani’s story concerns us all: we cannot expose our flank to a shift towards authoritarianism. As soon as I informed members of the European Parliament about Meloni’s attacks and police intervention, many of them took the initiative to help. Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in’t Veld asked the Commission about the case. “This is the true face of Meloni,” MEP Guy Verhofstadt stated.

Each progressive group - S&D, Greens, Left, Renew - expressed its support against Meloni’s attack on media freedom. The Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman tweeted: “Just yesterday a senior European politician was saying to me that Meloni had not justified some of the fears expressed about her. Maybe they spoke too soon.” Brussels’ most read newsletter, Politico Europe Playbook, raised the case, and lots of European newspapers did the same. 

On March 15, Rome’s attorney stated that seizing Domani’s article about Durigon was an improper and invalid act. He said he knew about the case “thanks to the press”. This doesn’t mean Meloni’s government has stopped suing us. It means that mobilising works, and I am grateful for such a huge solidarity from around Europe. There’s a lesson: as the feminist poet Audre Lorde once said: “Your silence will not protect you.” We cannot surrender any inch of our collective freedom.

Francesca De Benedetti @FrancesDiBi) covers European politics at Domani newspaper. This op-ed has been published by Tagesspiegel (in German), Libération (in French) and Balkan Insight (in English).

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