Mafia and media: The reporters working a deadly beat

The mafia has changed, but Italian journalists covering organised crime still face threats – of death or lawsuits.

A photo exhibition in memory of magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino on the 20th anniversary of the Capaci Mafia attack in Milan [Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images]

Ballaro is a historic street market in the Albergheria, the oldest neighbourhood in Palermo – Sicily’s capital.

Behind the curtain of the hectic market activity, among the dark alleys and the rundown buildings, poverty and petty crime are widespread.

Francesco Viviano grew up there. On March 23, 1950, he was only 13 months old when his father, a thief, was killed.

A Very Sicilian Justice: Taking on the mafia

At the age of 17, Viviano had the opportunity to avenge his father’s death. But as he stood with a revolver in his hand, looking at his father’s murderer, he decided not to shoot. 

“Growing up in such a difficult environment, my fate was sealed. I was bound to become a criminal, maybe just a purse snatcher, perhaps a killer affiliated to Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia. That was my natural habitat,” he says.

Instead, he became a reporter.

His mother used to be a cleaner at the offices of ANSA – Italy’s largest news agency – and she got him a job there as delivery boy. At ANSA, Viviano first made contact with journalism, climbed the ladder from the very bottom and ended up covering organised crime.

Reporting on the Great Mafia War 

At that time, during the 1980s, Palermo was the theatre of the Mattanza, the Great Mafia War, waged by the Corleonesi – led by Salvatore “Toto” Riina – against other mafia families for control of the region. More than a thousand people were killed, not only within the mafia, but also police officers, judges, politicians and journalists.

That was followed by the Maxi Trial – the biggest organised trial of crime syndicates in the world. It was held in a purpose-built bunker court in Palermo at the end of the 1980s. Viviano sat in the audience with his notebook; many of the friends he grew up with in Ballaro were on the opposite side of the barricade, in the cages where the 475 indicted mafiosi were held during the trial.

“Most of my friends ended up in the mafia, some became bosses. Many died, many disappeared, others are serving life sentences. Fortunately, I managed to get out of that environment and became a journalist,” Viviano says.

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But being a journalist in Sicily at that time – especially one covering the mafia – wasn’t necessarily safe and reporters were sometimes caught in the crosshairs of the mafia wars.

Eleven journalists have been killed in Italy since 1960; nine of them fell victim to organised crime. No other western European country has endured such a death toll.

‘They wanted me dead’

Palermo has changed profoundly since the mafia wars.

According to a 2013 survey by the Italian National Institute of Statistics, Palermo was the safest among Italy’s 12 largest cities.

The mafia has also changed. Operations have been pulled underground – and what has been estimated as annual revenues amounting to $160bn have been kept away from the spotlight. Importantly, the mafia’s media strategy has undergone huge changes. Open violence is no longer the norm; secret threats are much more frequent. Bullets in the post have given way to legal summons and defamation claims.

But the climate for journalists who report on organised crime is still very challenging. Murders seem to be a thing of the past, but mainly because the authorities are faster to react than they were back then.

“Luckily, today the police have ways to stop this before it happens. They are able to detect when somebody comes under this sort of threat, the threat of being assassinated,” says Lirio Abbate, an investigative reporter with national news magazine L’Espresso.

“At that point, the police will inform you that you are in danger, so you are given an armed escort and an armoured car.”

Until 2009, Abbate reported from Palermo for the news agency ANSA and La Stampa newspaper. He covered the mafia and investigated its links to human trafficking and migration.

In 2006, Abbate was the only journalist present at the arrest of the “boss of bosses”, Bernardo Provenzano, who is now serving multiple life sentences after 43 years on the run.

Abbate had to move to Rome for his own safety when two men tried to plant a bomb under his car and a mafia boss openly threatened him. In Rome, he broke the story of the so-called Capital Mafia and its leaders, two years before state prosecutors moved in on them.

“These mafiosi were not used to having their affairs aired in public by such an investigation, especially once it started to affect their links to politicians. So they came after me, they wanted me dead,” says Abbate, who now lives under 24-hour police protection.

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According to La Repubblica newspaper, in 2015, somewhere between 30 and 50 Italian journalists lived under police protection because they had received death threats.

The Rome-based press freedom organisation Ossigeno per l’informazione says about 3,000 journalists have been threatened for their reporting activity in Italy since 2006. More than 200 of those work in Sicily, but the situation is even worse in the regions of Lazio, Lombardy and Campania.

“The mafia are used to being in the driving seat. As long as they are not in the open, out of the public eye, they can fix it. But once stories get in the papers, in the news, it’s out of their control. It’s a message that reaches the public, and that’s the kind of thing that damages their business more than 10 judicial inquiries,” Abbate says.

The soft threat against journalists

Alberto Spampinato, the head of Ossigeno per l’informazione, whose reporter brother was killed by the mafia in 1972, says there are soft threats and hard threats.

“The mafia is a major offender when it comes to threats to journalists, but according to our data soft threats coming from ‘white collars’ – like libel suits – are even more widespread,” Spampinato says.

Viviano agrees. “I had problems not only with the mafia, but also with the judiciary. Sometimes as a journalist you find yourself writing about stories that either the mafiosi or the magistrates do not like. My house and offices were searched dozens of times. I was even investigated for having ties with the mafia for publishing confidential information, a move the judge clearly didn’t like.”

And legal threats are a major issue. A report released in August 2015 by the parliamentary anti-mafia committee called for parliament to pass a new law to protect press freedom and avoid – as is common practice in Italy at the moment – the filing of malicious lawsuits against journalists to stop them investigating.

“There are hundreds, maybe thousands of journalists who are on trial in Italy at the moment,” Spampinato says.

“This has a terrible chilling effect on journalism – reporters aren’t usually sentenced to jail terms but even the possibility that is in the law at the moment is an incentive to self-censorship and a big threat to press freedom.”

The mafia’s war on Italy’s investigative journalists

Source: Al Jazeera