A newsstand in Rome in May 2019. Over 20 journalists in Italy are provided with round-the-clock police protection because of threats from groups including the mafia. (Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane
A newsstand in Rome in May 2019. Over 20 journalists in Italy are provided with round-the-clock police protection because of threats from groups including the mafia. (Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane

‘I was the first to lose my freedom’: How police protection impacts Italy’s investigative reporters

Explaining the sudden presence of two grim-looking bodyguards in a way that wouldn’t scare her children was never going to be easy for Federica Angeli, a reporter for la Repubblica. So when Angeli returned home with police protection for the first time in July 2013, she tried to turn the situation into a game. “I told them that mom wrote an article that was so excellent the newspaper gave her two drivers and a car,” she recalled.

Six years on, Angeli and her children have round-the-clock police protection because of threats to her from the mafia in Rome and in her hometown, Ostia. The journalist is escorted in an armored car to and from her newspaper every day, she cannot walk alone or easily pick up her children from school. “With three kids, two bodyguards, and me, we simply do not fit into a normal car,” she said, describing how profoundly her daily life has changed. “The strange thing is that I was the first to lose my freedom, well before those I had investigated in my articles were imprisoned.”

Angeli is one of around 20 reporters in Italy who are defended by armed police 24/7 due to credible threats, in addition to over 165 journalists who have some form of police protection, according to a 2018 December report by Ossigeno, an Italian nongovernmental organization that tracks threats and attacks on journalists.

While in Italy last month, I spoke with five journalists who described what it was like to work under la Scorta, the country’s system of police protection. Nearly all of them said that while the system made them feel safer, it has limited their ability to work as investigative reporters and makes it harder to speak with confidential sources.

As Angeli noted bitterly, “It is efficient on an operative level, but it is also a way for the mafia to kill proper reporting on their wrongdoings, by preventing journalists to be able to do their work.”

Some of the journalists added that they viewed comments by Matteo Salvini, Italy’s powerful far-right leader and former deputy prime minister who earlier this year suggested cutting the safety measures, as dangerous rhetoric at a time when the press is under threat.

A report by the Council of Europe’s Platform for the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists, that CPJ is a partner of, noted that the number of press freedom violations reported to the platform more than tripled in Italy in 2018 compared to 2017. “The growing violence against journalists in Italy is particularly worrying,” the report said.

‘The bodyguards’

“Here at least we can be sure that they will not poison us,” Michele Albanese, a Calabrian investigative reporter, said as he greeted me at a restaurant in Rome. “I mean, they won’t poison our pasta with ketchup,” he added quickly, laughing at my startled reaction.

Eating in the shadow of chestnut trees, we looked like strange company, as two men in civilian clothing—the police escorts—sat quietly next to us occasionally scanning the surroundings but not participating in our conversation.

For Albanese, this is normal. The reporter for the daily Quotidiano del Sud has been under police protection since 2014, after receiving threats over his investigations into the powerful group, the ‘Ndrangheta.

“Even with police guards, back home in Calabria, I would not be able to sit outside in a restaurant like here, that would be too dangerous,” he said. Albanese has got used to the protection so much that he can crack jokes about it, and calls his escorts “his brothers.”

“Only nights are difficult. I often have nightmares and worry a lot about my family’s safety,” he said. The worries are mutual: his wife calls him every hour when he is not at home, to find out how he is.

The loss of everyday freedoms and a wish for a return to normal life were common to all of the reporters with whom I met, but a heavier burden affects their professional life.

La Scorta made me completely change the way I can do my reporting,” Angeli told me when we met in her office. She used to do undercover reporting, interview sources within organized crime groups, and had informants in law enforcement and the judicial system. “Now, with two police guards constantly escorting me, guaranteeing the confidentiality of sources has become a real challenge,” she said.

“I very much miss field reporting, but I can continue my work, I just had to adapt my reporting to the circumstances,” she said. Angeli said she does most of her interviews either by phone or arranges meetings at the Rome headquarters of her newspaper, a building that can be entered only through steel grid gates and interlocking doors. And, although she lives near to the family whose members were imprisoned due to her investigations, Angeli has refused to move. “When you are waging a war, you cannot leave the battlefield,” she said. Her book, A mano disarmata (Unarmed hand), which recounts her struggles with local mafia groups, has been turned into a movie.

Angeli was not the only journalist determined to not let the threats and police protection impact their working life. Lirio Abbate, deputy editor of the prominent weekly, L’espresso in Rome, said, “I do not want this drama to hijack my life, to be identified as the journalist under police protection, or the anti-mafia reporter, I do not want this to define me as a journalist.”

Abbate, who describes himself as “a humble servant of the news” worked as an investigative reporter in his native Sicily through the 1990s and 2000s, amid threats and even a murder attempt in 2007: the same year he was assigned police protection. He moved to Rome for work reasons in 2009 and now coordinates a team of investigative reporters at L’espresso: a role where he said he can use his expertise and experiences to report on the mafia in a more impactful way.

The threats don’t just come from mafia. Paolo Berizzi, of la Repubblica, was assigned 24-hour police protection in 2018 because of death threats from neo-fascist groups that he reported on.

When we met in a cafe in his home town of Bergamo, in northern Italy, with his police guard watching from across the square, Berizzi acknowledged that he had to change the ways he reports. “I used to go to meetings, events and demonstrations organized by neo-fascists, just to observe them and gather information, but now since I am well-known to them, that has become impossible,” he said. Being assigned police protection and the publication of his book on neo-fascists have increased the journalist’s profile, he said.

“The police protection is important for prevention,” Berizzi added, “Even if it demonstrates how weak the Italian state is, how much it is on the defense and unable to deal with the mafia and the neo-fascists group with other, more pro-active means.”

Giovanni Tizian, an investigative reporter who covers the mafia for L’espresso and la Repubblica in his native Emilia-Romagna region, agreed that protection was necessary. “Italy has become a more dangerous place for journalists, especially since politicians often wage verbal attacks against journalists and the debate about the police protection did not help the situation either,” he said.

Tizian was referring to comments that Salvini made in a video posted to his Facebook page in May, while still deputy prime minister and Interior Minister. In the video, the politician addressed anti-mafia writer and author of Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano, and said that he would like to revise the criteria for police escorts.

Saviano has been assigned full police protection since 2006, following threats over his writing on the mafia. The writer and politician have clashed previously: their criticisms of each other, mainly made over social media, have been reported widely including by The Guardian.

Salvini had proposed cutting police protection previously, including a speech in April, when he discussed more generally the system of police protection for journalists, politicians, magistrates and even businessmen. During the speech, Salvini talked about “cutting waste and unnecessary privileges”, and added, “We must defend those who must be defended, the policemen are not drivers or personal escorts.”

A spokesperson from Salvini’s La Lega party did not immediately respond to CPJ’s email requesting comment.

“These attacks are just words, but for words, very dangerous,” Alberto Spampinato, director of Ossigeno, told CPJ. He explained that an independent body of the Ministry of the Interior decides on police protection for those at risk, including journalists, politicians, businessmen, magistrates, or government officials. Politicians like Salvini are not part of the process, and have no decision-making power over it, Spampinato said. The director added that once assigned police protection, the person cannot turn it down.

Journalists who are assigned armed escorts represent only a fraction of the almost 600 people protected by the police. “It is a highly efficient system, which other countries study as an example and it prevented the mafia from killing any Italian journalist since 1993, as opposed to eight killed in the period since 1960 to 1993,” he said. For Spampinato, this system is important for personal reasons: his brother, Giovanni, an investigative journalist in Sicily was murdered by the mafia in 1972.

When I asked the journalists assigned protection whether they felt safer, the answer was unanimously yes. All of them also said they were committed to investigative reporting despite the threats and challenges their situation presents.

As Albanese said, “I have a duty to stay … to continue living in Calabria, in my land, to show that we can continue to be journalists despite all these limitations and I believe that a true journalist will always find a way, no matter what the circumstances are.”

[Reporting from Rome and Bergamo.]