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giornalismo di comunità
June 12, 2024
Social Justice

Community journalism is the only antidote to the illiberal drift in Italy

Insight by Sara Manisera/Fada Collective

Political interference in the media, legal threats by members of the Meloni government against journalists critical of power, an increasing concentration of media ownership in the hands of politicians and business-industrial groups. Plus violence, aggression and intimidation. These are just some of the issues addressed by the European Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) consortium, which organised an urgent advocacy mission in Rome on 16-17 May 2024 to address some of the increasingly worrying issues related to press and media freedom in Italy. No member of the far-right government led by Giorgia Meloni met with the European delegation, because 'all requests to meet were refused or ignored', says the MFRR press release. 

The tendency of political interference, legal harassment, and oligopoly in the media sector are not new phenomena but are increasingly institutionalised by the government, apathetically normalised by citizens3 and are causing an isolation of those journalists who carry out investigations in the public interest or exercise their right to criticism. 

Just think of the case of the journalists Nello Trocchia, Stefano Vergine and Giovanni Tizian of the daily newspaper Domani, investigated by the Perugia Public Prosecutor's Office for abusive access and revealing a secret, following a complaint by Defence Minister Guido Crosetto, who in fact asked the magistrates to identify the journalists' sources. The reporters had published in the newspaper the fees received by Crosetto as a consultant to the arms giant Leonardo. It was real news, of public interest, about political power and opaque relations with industrial groups. 'What they are being accused of is not of having written falsehoods or defamed anyone but of having carried out journalistic investigations with real papers', summarises the note from Usigrai, the RAI journalists' union. Yet the journalists have been accused of 'dossier' and 'espionage' by newspapers friendly to power. 

As often happens in Italy, in fact, the waters are muddied, mud is thrown to confuse, opinion leaders are invited who say everything and the opposite of everything. Thus the3 citizens, lost3 in this time of bulimic production of information and fake news, are less and less informed.  

In addition to the case of Domani, there are also the increasingly pressing interferences at RAI, such as the cancellation of the summer repeats of Report, the stop to Antonio Scurati's intervention on 25 April in Serena Bortone's programme 'Chesarà...', followed by aletter of disciplinary dispute for the post that the journalist had written on Facebook and which allegedly violated company policy. 

But these are the best known cases. Then there are the tiny stories, unknown to most, of freelance journalists and independent media increasingly exposed to legal threats, lawsuits, claims for damages, content removal or de-indexing under the right to be forgotten. One example is IrpiMedia, an independent investigative publication, with five pending lawsuits and EUR 150,000 in damages claims. Or the case of the writer, sued for defamation by Cesare Nai, centre-right mayor of Abbiategrasso, for having spoken of the presence of the mafia in the area. And again, the case of Claudio Cordova, editor of Il Dispaccio in Reggio Calabria, with more than 60 lawsuits filed in twenty years of work and a recent conviction at first instance for defamation with a claim for damages. 

In short, doing public interest journalism in Italy is increasingly difficult. Firstly, because of the economic issue: most journalists do not have contracts, are paid piecework and their expenses are not covered. Investigations published in print or online media, the result of months of work, are paid between 100 and 300 euro and, when it goes well, 1000 euro. If you work as an independent journalist and want to carry out an investigation or a reportage, you first have to find a way to finance the project and this means spending months researching and writing calls for tenders. In fact, you stop being a journalist to become a project manager. 

Directly linked to the economic issue is mental health, a topic investigated by journalist Alice Facchini in 'How do you feel'. Stress, anxiety, insomnia, food and substance abuse, internet addiction, panic attacks, burnout caused first and foremost by instability and precariousness, followed by too low remuneration, always being connected and on call, and frantic rhythms. This is what emerged in the first survey conducted from July to October 2023 to which 558 journalists3 responded. In addition to mental health disorders, there are also threats, intimidation and lawsuits. As of 15 April 2024, 133 journalists have been threatened in 43 episodes, according to data collected by the Ossigeno per l'informazione observatory, which has been monitoring the situation of the press in Italy since 2006. Moreover, in Reporters Without Borders' 2024 ranking on freedom of information, Italy has dropped five places compared to 2023 and currently ranks 46th out of 180. 

Then there is the issue of shrinking spaces. For years now, organisations such as FADA Collective, an association of independent journalists, have been denouncing the absence of spaces where they can publish long reports, documentaries, investigations of public interest that focus on social and environmental justice, inequalities, and that name and shame those responsible for them. There is a lack of stories that can inspire change and connect the dots, as we often say, from the local to the global and vice versa. 

This lack of space for in-depth investigations pushes people to publish stories of public interest - from the water crisis in Sicily to the arms industry, from Eni's illicit behaviour in Iraq or Basilicata to PNRR funds - in foreign newspapers because in Italy there are few media-magazines-channels where certain types of stories can be published, there are no fair and equitable payments, there are no publishers (and sometimes editors-in-chief) willing to publish, due to the great interference of companies, multinationals and politicians in the press. Nor are there citizens willing to pay and support journalism. 

In short, on the one hand we are witnessing an information bulimia made up of useless superficial, polarising and polluting articles that do not inform citizens on crucial issues such as the climate crisis, corruption, mafias, food, racism, energy transition, while at the same time distancing them from information. On the other hand, we experience a narrowing of civic spaces in which the right to criticism, freedom of expression and the right to inform can be exercised. Citizens are thus less and less informed, addicted to their own bubbles and circuits, tired and powerless and, consequently, less inclined to become indignant, participate and mobilise against those who hold and abuse power. 

Examples of this are the recent investigation in which the Minister of Tourism, Daniela Santanché, isunder investigation for false accounting, or those in Liguria with Toti, who is under investigation for corruption. Where is the anger and mobilisation of citizens? How well informed are they on these matters of public interest? But above all, how do we get out of this long historical phase, initiated by Berlusconi, with the acquisition of televisions, newspapers, private publishing houses and which has continued to the present day with most of the publishing groups in the hands of a handful of industrialist and political families? 

Let us think of Exor, the holding company of the Agnelli-Elkann family and controlling shareholder of the Gedi publishing group (i.e. Repubblica, La Stampa but also Radio Deejay, Radio Capital) or of Antonio Angelucci, owner of three newspapers (Giornale, Libero and Tempo), entrepreneur in the private health sector, deputy of the League and intent on acquiring the press agency AGI, now owned by ENI; and the RCS Media Group, in full Rizzoli-Corriere della Sera, administered by Urbano Cairo, former collaborator of Silvio Berlusconi in Fininvest and today also owner of LA7. 

In short, how could these newspapers so close to power disturb and criticise it? How could they publish investigations, reports or stories that question the very workings of capitalism? 

Without a quality journalism, capable of disturbing power, criticising it, controlling it and orienting citizens, there is no democracy. And another thought should be added. Without quality journalism and community, there is no participation. It is therefore necessary to rebuild a community of journalists at the service of communities and informed, participative citizens. To do this, however, it is essential to weave networks and alliances of solidarity between citizens, journalists, activists and civil society organisations. 

The only antidote to the illiberal drift is to start again from informed and aware citizens because, as the journalist Giancarlo Siani, killed by the Camorra in 1985, wrote, 'crime and corruption cannot be fought only with carabinieri. In order to choose, people must know, they must know the facts. So what a 'journalist' should do is this: inform'. To inform in a committed manner, accompanying communities, analysing the ecological and social fractures of our time, feeling the injustices of the world on one's skin, denouncing, becoming uncomfortable, illuminating the areas that in mainstream information remain dark in order to truly develop a journalism of in-depth public interest at the service of communities. 

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