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Women rest on a ship run by the Maltese non-governmental group Moas and the Italian Red Cross after a rescue operation in the Mediterranean in November 2016. In Italy, journalists say they are regularly harassed and threatened online over their coverage of migration issues. (AFP/Andreas Solaro)

Italy's migrant beat beset with smear campaigns, harassment

By Sarah Guinee/CPJ Patti Birch Fellow for Gender and Media Freedom on April 2, 2019 5:19 PM ET

When Annalisa Camilli spent eight days on an Open Arms ship that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean, she knew her reporting for the Italian news magazine Internazionale may attract trolls. Camilli has covered the migrant beat for years and this was her second trip with the non-profit rescue operation. But, the reporter said, she was unprepared for the barrage of harassment, including derogatory name-calling, manipulated photos, and veiled rape threats that followed the trip in July.

Some journalists say that online harassment, especially of those covering politicized issues such as migration, has worsened in Italy since a populist, anti-immigrant coalition comprising the Five Star Movement and the far-right party Lega came to power in elections last year. In 2018, 11 percent of all online threats documented in Italy by Ossigeno per l'informazione were directed at journalists, the Italian research watchdog found. Forty percent of those targeted female journalists: a high percentage considering findings by the European Journalism Observatory that women represent only 23 percent of bylines in leading Italian news outlets.

Online harassment can disrupt journalists' ability to report and even push them from the beat. To understand the impact of the threats, CPJ spoke with four Italian reporters, including Camilli about the intense and apparently coordinated harassment campaigns--or cyber mobs--they are exposed to when covering migrants.

One person at the center of these cyber mobs is Francesca Totolo, a political activist and supporter of the neo-fascist party CasaPound. Since August 2017, she has regularly tweeted negative and taunting messages about journalists covering migration and other issues central to the Italian far-right's platform.

Twitter threads viewed by CPJ start with Totolo commenting on or sharing an article, and tagging the journalist as well as several other accounts. What follows are abusive, threatening tweets directed at the journalist by Totolo's followers, other Twitter users on the thread, and copy-cat accounts that replicate the aggressive messaging.

"Totolo has a very big network of haters and trolls, so if she does a tweet against you, then her network of trolls start to do the same," Marta Serafini, who covers local politics and migration for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, told CPJ.

In an interview with La Stampa last year, Totolo said that she had "close ties" with anonymous Twitter accounts that focus on the migrant issue.

In an email to CPJ, Totolo denied threatening reporters and denied that her followers are trolls. She said she is not a political activist.

As well as cyber mob attacks, Camilli said she received repeated calls at all hours from several people, including a woman who introduced herself as Totolo. The caller and others accused Camilli of fabricating her work and claimed that a refugee she interviewed was an actor: a claim first made by Totolo in an article for Il Primato Nazionale, a CasaPound-affiliated publication. Camilli said she stopped picking up the calls and they eventually faded away.

In her email to CPJ, Totolo denied threatening Camilli.

The harassment has escalated as Italy debates how to handle the tens of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers who arrive each year by sea. The crisis was a central platform in elections and the newly elected coalition is implementing restrictive deportation policies, The Guardian reported.

"In the past few years, some politicians became very vocal about immigration. Journalists were embedded on NGO ships, and they became a target, not in the military sense--but in the propaganda sense--of trolls, of haters on Twitter," said Serafini. "Harassment and hate speech became more and more aggressive."

Smear campaigns including allegations that the billionaire philanthropist George Soros pays reporters to cover migration in a specific way, or that female journalists prostituted themselves for stories, or had sex with refugees and other interviewees, are also used to try to discredit coverage.

Angela Caponnetto, who reports for the Italian public broadcaster Rai, said she gets abusive messages via social media and email nearly every time that she speaks or reports on migration. Camilli said that after the election, she was harassed "more or less every time I wrote something about NGOs, migrants, or rescuing them in the Mediterranean."

Three of the journalists said that rape threats, both explicit and veiled, are common. Camilli and freelancer Claudia Torrisi both said that a regular threat is, "I hope you get raped by migrants."

"A female journalist receives this kind of treatment on a daily basis," Torrisi said.

Caponnetto told CPJ that she blocked Totolo on Twitter three years ago, but that smaller nationalist, anti-immigration Twitter accounts organize similar efforts to harass her. She said that when she reported the harassment to Italy's Postal Police, who investigate cybercrime, they told her the attacks may be coming from the secret service or security forces in Libya. Most migrants crossing the Mediterranean depart from Libya.

Italy's postal police did not respond to CPJ's request for comment.

Camilli said she has veered from writing about migrants and the organizations that support them. In part this is because the news agenda at Internazionale shifted, but she acknowledged the impact the harassment had on her.

"I didn't want to follow up with stories about NGOs, about migrants in the Mediterranean. I started focusing on other issues, for example the law in Italy that was changing," she said. "I think that in some way I was influenced because I didn't want to speak about that anymore. I was a little bit tired of being [harassed]. At the end, I think in some way [the harassers] have succeeded in what they want to achieve."

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The eighth and tenth paragraph of this blog post have been updated to include Totolo's responses.]


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