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Roma (AFP) – A trial pitting far-right Italian government leader Giorgia Meloni against investigative journalist Roberto Saviano opens on Tuesday, with the anti-mafia author charged with defamation for violently criticizing her in 2020 over her stance on migrants .
Ms Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia party was in opposition at the time, but took power last month after a landslide election victory prompted in part by its promise to stop the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean .
Mr. Saviano, best known for his international bestseller on the mafia, “Gomorrah”, faces up to three years in prison.
Ms. Meloni, traveling to Bali, Indonesia, for the G20, will not be present at the hearing.
The case dates back to December 2020 when the writer was asked on a political show to comment on the death, in a shipwreck, of a six-month-old baby from Guinea.
The infant, Joseph, was one of 111 migrants rescued by the Open Arms aid ship, but died before he could receive medical attention.
In footage shot by lifeguards and shown to Mr Saviano on the show, the baby’s mother can be heard crying “Where’s my baby? Help, I’m losing my baby!”
He then pointed the finger at Ms. Meloni and Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Anti-Immigration League, now a member of his coalition government.
“I just want to tell Meloni, and Salvini, you bastards! How could you?” Mr. Saviano said on the show.
Ms Meloni had said in 2019 that humanitarian NGO ships that rescue migrants “should be sunk”, while Mr Salvini, as interior minister the same year, had blocked the arrival of such ships in Italy.
Writers’ association PEN International, which defends freedom of expression, sent an open letter to Ms Meloni this week, urging her to withdraw her complaint.
Mr Saviano, 43, told AFP the trial was an “uneven showdown, decidedly grotesque”, while press freedom groups warned it was sending a “chilling message” to journalists.
For the author, under police protection since the publication of “Gomorra” due to threats from the Neapolitan Camorra mafia, the proceedings against him are aimed at “intimidating one to intimidate a hundred”.
“It will be even more difficult (for journalists) to report on what is happening” if their words are “judged when they criticize power and its inhumane policies”, Mr Saviano said.
Press freedom groups say such trials are symbolic of a culture in Italy in which public figures, often politicians, intimidate journalists with repeated lawsuits.
Italy is ranked 58th in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, the lowest level in Western Europe.
Tuesday’s trial is not the only one Mr. Saviano faces for defamation. He was sued in 2018 by Matteo Salvini after calling him “Il Ministro della Malavita”, or underworld minister. This trial is due to begin in February.
© 2022 AFP