Italy’s PM Meloni sues Gomorrah writer in libel drama over refugee rescue | Italy

Italy’s new far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, is suing one of the world’s best-known journalists, the anti-mafia and human rights campaigner Roberto Saviano, for criminal defamation, over remarks he made regarding her policy towards migrants drowning in the Mediterranean shares.

This is the second time in just under four years that senior government ministers have targeted Saviano, 43, with criminal proceedings, despite a duty to protect him after the Neapolitan Camorra issued a death threat following publication of his book Gomorrah in 2006.

Saviano was charged with criminal libel by the then interior minister Matteo Salvini in 2019 – and is now summoned to court in Rome on Tuesday to answer Meloni’s charges.

Saviano appeared on an Italian television program, Piazza Pulita, after a six-month-old baby from Guinea drowned in the Mediterranean in November 2020. He was one of 111 migrants rescued by a ship sailed by an NGO called Open Arms, but died before he could be taken to Malta for medical attention.

The case became notorious in Italy, after the Roman Catholic newspaper Avvenire showed a video of the baby’s mother crying: “Where’s my baby? I’ve lost my baby,” and published a searing editorial about the state’s inability to aid migrants at sea.

On the program, Saviano targeted Meloni, the leader of the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy party, and Salvini, the leader of the right-wing Northern League party.

Saviano, visibly upset by images of the attempted rescue shown, told an interviewer: “All I can say is: they’re bastards – Meloni, Salvini … How is it possible, over such desperation? They have a policy, legitimately, which opposes that of reception [of migrants] – but surely not in the case of an emergency in mid-sea.”

Still from footage of the Open Arms rescue of 111 migrants in the Mediterranean in November 2020. Photograph: YouTube

Saviano praised Open Arms for “a heroic act” in trying to save the drowning migrants, adding of Meloni’s declared policy at the time: “How is this thinkable?”

Meloni had argued in July 2019, on the same TV channel, La7, that the law of the sea directed the rescue of drowning people only in “occasional” circumstances, involving ships engaged in “inoffensive passage, as distinct from passage prejudicial to the peace and security of nations”. She said that ships engaged in “the illegal transport of human beings” into Italian waters “are not inoffensive passage”, and that rescue was therefore not a legal requirement.

Meloni, then leader of the opposition, issued her writ for criminal defamation in November last year, under article 595 of the Italian penal code. Although libel would constitute a civil law case in many countries, in Italy it carries – under this article – a potential jail sentence of up to three years.

Meloni became Italy’s prime minister last month after her coalition won a general election. Many thought the case would disappear once she was in government.

Speaking to the Observer yesterday, Saviano said: “There was a dramatic, tragic shipwreck, which Open Arms recalls as the darkest in all its search and rescue endeavors. A baby was drowned – and there have been many, with probably many more – literally, slipped from the arms of his mother and the rescuers, and we hoped that this tragedy would open people’s eyes and shake their consciences.

“But from Meloni and Salvini came ferocious and inhuman anti-migrant propaganda. Meloni speaks of these NGO ships as pirates; she’s said they should be sunk, their crew arrested. We all know what this means: that the Libyan coastguard is composed by the same militias that run the camps and organize the departures.

Giorgia Meloni, the day after she was sworn in last month as Italy's prime minister.
Giorgia Meloni, the day after she was sworn in last month as Italy’s prime minister. Photograph: Ettore Ferrari/EPA

“In the light of this, and the libel charge, do you really think mine were such offensive words? In the climate of an election campaign and daily politics against a category of people, defining them as delinquents, rapists and drug pushers? And now a ‘residual burden’? That’s what I call offensive, hard and sharp – to ruin people’s lives with propaganda.”

Two days ago, Meloni stood by her position, with a statement: “On that boat were migrants, not shipwrecked people.”

She added: “People boarded those ships in international waters… The ship that took them in its charge was equipped to accommodate them and provide for all their reception needs.”

She said migration was “a theme that has sparked ridiculous controversy” and pledged: “The banana republic in which citizens are so vexed, but which is so popular on the left, is over.”

In Italy’s notoriously slow legal process, Salvini’s case against Saviano is pending: an initial hearing deferred the charge to a further court appearance in February next year.

Saviano said he fears not only “the manifestations” of “the same ferocious policy they’ve always had”, but also “a long-term political project whereby the extreme right now in power can become a leader of the [right-wing] Visegrád group in Europe, and break the axis with France and Germany. As the saying goes: ‘Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.'”

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