Reporters accused ahead of Capital Mafia trial in Rome

Alberto Spampinato

Attacks on journalists who inform readers about an alleged unprecedented scandal have multiplied on the eve of a mega-trial in Rome.
A few days away from the start of the „Capital Mafia” trial in Rome  which will start on November 5, some positions have revealed an intolerance for the role of the press and of the reporters who have duly and extensively informed the public on the prosecution stance and the charges pressed against the individual defendants.

Capital Mafia trialParticularly shocking is the attack by a group of criminal lawyers on dozens of court reporters and the attempt by some of them to isolate the journalist Lirio Abbate by denigrating him sarcastically.

The freedom to express opinions, dialectics and pluralism are out of the question, as well as the fact that opinions can be refuted and that it is up to the judges of the Court to verify the actual guilt of each of the defendants. That is obvious. But it is even more clear that it was and is a duty for newspapers to inform citizens as clearly and as extensively as possible, especially in the face of the explosion of a alleged scandal of such vast proportions.

The discovery of an organised criminal mafia in Rome is unprecedented and it is understandable the conviction that the Italian capital was immune to the active presence of criminal organisations like the mafia. It was therefore useful, necessary, and obligatory to have broad media coverage on the issue.

But the Criminal Chamber of Rome has made known that it does not think so. Through a complaint to the Public Prosecutor, the voluntary association representing criminal lawyers in the Capital has accused 97 journalists of violating the ban on publication of judicial documents (as per article 114 of the Code of Criminal Procedure) as well as the ethical norms of their profession. They would have done so during the two waves of arrests, the first in December 2014 and the second in June 2015, publishing 278 articles in 14 newspapers, reporting content and textual parts of arrest warrants in jail.

Such a wide collective accusation with this offence has not happened before in living memory.

A brave reporter with long experience who has at other times witnessed these conflicts between lawyers and reporters, my friend Attilio Bolzoni, sees the initiative of the Criminal Chamber a sort of conditioned reflex. Even in Palermo, he recalls, on the eve of the mega-trial against Cosa Nostra in 1987, the criminal lawyers addressed similar accusations to reporters. But there was no formal initiative nor anything so sensational. “This time I do not understand what the goal is. Maybe they want the mega-trial to be done against reporters rather than the mafia?” he says with bitter irony.

"O tempora o mores!", Nostro would say. Back when the Criminal Chamber, for two terms, was chaired with great prestige by the lawyer Oreste Flamminii Minuto, such a reaction would have been unthinkable. The great lawyer taught that the journalist who is in possession of facts covered by secrecy has a duty to publish them if they contain relevant information of public interest, because he acts in the interests of citizens.

Reporters who observe the profession’s ethics follow this preaching, which is not an incitement to commit a crime, but to apply the spirit of other more open norms, such as article 326 of the Criminal Code which punishes with great severity the public official or the person responsible for a public service who reveals confidential information (by the way, shouldn’t they be the target of the Criminal Chamber?), but only on condition that he does so “violating the duties inherent to the functions or the service, or otherwise abusing his position.”

In this spirit, court reporters and the editors responsible for publication frequently violate article 114 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. They do it so as to exercise their professional duty. They do it in the name of article 51 of the Criminal Code, which excludes the punishment of those who act in the exercise of a duty imposed by a rule of law (the law establishing the Order of Journalists) or in the fulfillment of a right, in this case that provided by article 21 of the Constitution. By doing so they accept the risk of being punished, pursuant to article 684 of the Criminal Code, with a fine ranging from 50 to 251 Euros.

Alternatively, the law provides for imprisonment of up to 30 days. But none of the criminal lawyers I consulted noted that the arrest was ever inflicted. There is an established practice that in these cases journalists pay the fine like an improper tax on the publication of news. It’s not fair, it’s not logical.

But it will remain so until a far-sighted and enlightened legislator (we’ve been waiting for one for quite some time) will add to the codes an explicit rule that fully recognises the civil service of information in the public interest that is produced and disseminated in the interest of citizens. The legislator we dream of will offer due criminal protection to the rights of expression and the press, as the Parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission demanded recently. These rules are needed to fill a gap in the legislation that allows these and other instrumental allegations and imposes a winding judicial path on the journalist accused of violating reputations and secrets.

Far more serious and worrying is the attempt by some to downplay the significance of the trial of Capital Mafia by isolating from his colleagues the journalist Lirio Abbate, who was the first - three years before the court investigation - to write in a newspaper about the criminal interactions of a political and business nature going on in Rome. For his fieldwork, conducted exclusively, he has been repeatedly threatened and a year ago he suffered an armed assault. Liro Abbate, who has lived under police protection since 2007 due to repeated death threats, does not deserve this sarcasm and denigration by some of the lawyers of the defendants in the Capital Mafia inquiry. He actually deserves another journalism prize, to add to the rich collection of medals he has already won.

The work of Lirio Abbate is the answer to those who occasionally, for fun, say that unfortunately in Italy nobody does investigative reporting as it used to be, that journalism that does not obtain information from court papers but searches for news from the streets, wearing out shoe-leather. This statement is coupled with the claim that there are no more half measures. The story of Lirio Abbate and the other thirty (or perhaps fifty) journalists who like him live under police protection because of threats received for their work, shows that somebody actually still does those investigations, but to do investigative reporting has become very, very dangerous in this country where many accept superficial information collected randomly. There are still – fortunately for us – those, like Lirio Abbate, who do not limit themselves to looking at things from a distance, to gather information from press releases or tame announcements, but goes in search of information braving the dangers that this entails, also when it means putting their lives at stake.

The attempt to make believe that a journalist who does not do investigations is a better journalist is clearly part of the process. This statement angers me. It is like the praise of the sentinel that leaves to someone else the task of keeping watch and raising the alarm.

Scandals can be avoided through silence and judicial inaction. It is an old recipe that makes evil fester. In Italy this recipe has been applied many, too many, times, even recently, and has produced the Italy of unsolved mysteries, of the unpunished massacres, of the collusions tolerated under the sun, of the corruption that swallows the money with which the country could be rich and generous with the weak. To put an end to such a season we have to defend those who, like Lirio Abbate and hundreds of journalists who every year like him are threatened or intimidated for the same reason, wants to exercise the constitutional right to inform us, we the people, and dares to inform us while events are taking place, not only after the judges have assessed them.

Alberto Spampinato, Ossigeno per l’informazione