Reporters Without Borders has asked Lirio Abbate, an Italian journalist who specialises in organised crime, to say what he thinks of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s comment that he would like to “strangle” people who write books or make films about the mafia.
The press freedom organisation is appalled by Berlusconi’s remark, made during a public meeting in Olbia, Sardinia, on 28 November. Referring to "The Octopus", a long-running Italian TV series about the mafia, he said: “If I find out who is the maker of the nine seasons of ‘The Octopus’ and who has written books on the mafia, which give such a bad image to Italy across the world, I swear that I will strangle them.”
“Words are like stones and if they are cast at those who are already at risk, they can resemble a suggestion,” said Abbate in his reaction, which is published in full below.
“At time when around 10 Italian journalists are under police protection for covering the mafia’s activities, Prime Minister Berlusconi’s comments are completey uncalled-for,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It is unacceptable for a European leader to send such a signal. Investigative coverage of the mafia is needed more than ever, especially to expose its infiltration of business circles.”
The press freedom organisation added: “Journalists who take risks to cover the mafia should be be supported. They should not be threatened with strangling. They should not be pressured into silence or into looking the other way.”
Abbate has covered all of the most important investigations and trials of members of the Sicilian mafia, Neapolitan camorra and Calabrian ’Ndrangheta and was the only journalist present when mafia chief Bernardo Provenzano was arrested. He and fellow journalists Peter Gomez are the joint authors of “The Accomplices,” a book about the collusion between the mafia and Italian politicians.
His police bodyguards thwarted an attempt to kill him in September 2007. The following month, mafia chief Leoluca Bagarella gave him a public warning. Frequently threatened, Abbate now lives outside Sicily with a permanent police escort.
This is what Abbate wrote about Berlusconi’s comment:
A prime minister who imagines, even metaphorically, an author being murdered just for writing books about the mafia ends up providing dangerous support to these criminal organisations, which have long been preparing to execute their death sentence. The mafia is there, it exists, there is a need to talk about it. Denouncing it is essential. Not talking about it does not solve the problem, as the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, would wish. Surrounding organised crime with silence, so that it can act more easily behind the scenes, is precisely what is wanted by the remaining mafia chiefs, still on the run in Sicily, and Berlusconi’s comment – whether spoken in jest or seriously – adopted the language of the criminals who have killed so many Italian citizens and officials.
Fortunately, there are still people in this country who talk and write about the mafia, about its crimes and its collusion with people in power and, by so doing, they combat the silence and oblivion. But it is not an easy task. These people face daily risks and death threats. A journalist’s work and life should not be endangered, especially in a western democracy. And yet this is still happening in Italy. Society should be helping and supporting the journalists and writers who are affected. And fortunately, this often happens. But when, as is happening with increasing frequency in our country, their investigative work and analyses threaten the interests of mafia bosses, who are increasing their power with help from certain politicians, we are confronted by a news blackout. And it is precisely in these cases that silence, indifference and oblivion triumph.
Tensions have mounted of late and so have the dangers these journalists are running. And Silvio Berlusconi’s comments have made them even more exposed as potential targets. Journalists who have had police escorts for years because of death sentences from a mafia that wants media invisibility suddenly find their vulnerability has increased considerably because of what our prime minister said. Words are like stones and if they are cast at those who are already at risk, they can resemble a suggestion. Or even an incitement for those who are already eager to turn off the safeties of their firearms. Before it is too late, the prime minister must reverse his position and publicly proclaim that he supports those who write about the mafia and their political accomplices.