Italian police recently seized journalist Francesco Pesante’s phone in a leak investigation. (Photo: L’Immediato)

Italian police seize and search journalist Francesco Pesante’s phone in leak investigation

Berlin, July 14, 2022 – Italian authorities should drop any investigation into journalist Francesco Pesante and refrain from harassing members of the press in leak investigations, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday.

On June 21, police in the southern town of Foggia summoned Pesante, managing director of the news website L’Immediato, to appear for questioning the following day, according to reports by L’Immediato and the media watchdog website Ossigeno, as well as Pesante, who communicated with CPJ via email.

During questioning on June 22, police told Pesante that he was a suspect in a leak investigation over a May 18 L’Immediato article based on security footage from cameras at a Foggia prison, the journalist said. Officers questioned Pesante about his sources and how L’Immediato acquired that footage, and Pesante told CPJ he refused to answer, citing journalistic privacy.

Officers released Pesante without charge, but confiscated his cellphone at the request of the local prosecutor’s office, the journalist said. His lawyer, Michele Vaira, was quoted in news reports saying that authorities searched messages stored on the phone related to that security footage.

Authorities returned Pesante’s phone on June 23, he said. If charged and convicted of disclosing state secrets, Pesante could face up to five years in prison, according to the Italian penal code.

“Italian authorities should drop any criminal investigation into journalist Francesco Pesante at once, and cease harassing members of the press for their work,” said Attila Mong, CPJ’s Europe representative. “The seizure of Pesante’s phone violated basic principles of press freedom, and threatened his ability to protect his sources. Such measures have no place in an EU country, and authorities should instead encourage and support journalists reporting on organized crime.”

In that May 18 article, L’Immediato reported on a man who was shot and killed while returning to a prison in Foggia after participating in a work-release program. Several other Italian outlets covered the killing and also relied on the prison’s security footage, Pesante said.

Authorities are also investigating two unnamed police officers over the leaked footage, according to Pesante and news reports.

Pesante told CPJ via email that the prosecutor’s action “deeply disturbed” him, as “no reporter should be pressured to reveal their sources.” L’Immediato regularly covers organized crime, according to CPJ’s review of the outlet’s website.

CPJ emailed the Foggia prosecutor’s office for comment, but did not receive any reply.