he abuse of the laws to silence the voice of freedom and free thinking has become rampant across the globe, including India, in recent times. But, the way this is being done in Italy under the Far-Right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who has just assumed the reins of government, confirms the fears of things to come in Europe dangerously tilting towards Neo-Fascism.
Two things have happened in quick succession in Italy that leave no one in doubt about the intentions of Meloni to impose authoritarianism with such vindictiveness that does not behove a Prime Minister of a democratic government.
Italy’s draconian defamation laws are often misused by the powers that be to intimidate critics. Investigative journalists have been at the receiving end. But, the bullying of Roberto Saviano, one of Italy’s best-known writers, has surpassed previous records. Saviano has just gone on trial and he runs the risk of getting a prison sentence. This is because he is accused of criminal defamation by the new Prime Minister herself. The case relates to comments made during a show telecast two years ago, when Saviano had condemned Meloni’s campaign as an Opposition leader to prevent NGO boats rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean. In an emotional response to footage of a grieving mother, whose baby had died when a migrant dinghy capsized, Saviano called Meloni and her ally on the radical Right, Matteo Salvini, “bastards”. Concurrently, he faces separate defamation lawsuits brought by Salvini, now deputy Prime Minister and Gennaro Sangiuliano, the Culture Minister. It is indeed rare the way Italy’s most powerful politicians have teamed up to pillory a writer. This is all the more unacceptable since it is happening in Italy, a founder member state of the European Union.
The European Court of Human Rights has noted politicians should be expected to tolerate higher levels of criticism and scrutiny, given their public position. This is because dissent, on matters of public interest, is an essential part of any functioning democracy. Meloni’s lawyer has defended her lawsuit on the ground that the “hatred” spewed by Saviano on the programme is intolerable. However, critics wonder how such a position can be taken after the incendiary rhetoric deployed by Meloni herself in relation to migrants – a pet issue for the Far-Right. The intent seems to instill fear in the minds of liberal tolerant people and create a climate of fear and self-censorship among editors and journalists particularly. The president of Pen International, Burhan Sonmez, supported Saviano’s right to speak his mind. “Criminal defamation lawsuits exhaust their victims. They rob them of their time, money and energy.”
Saviano’s case has a chilling parallel to the persecution of Salman Rushdie. Both received death threats and had to go into hiding for their writings. Saviano incurred the wrath of the Neapolitan mafia for his exposé of the latter’s activities in the publication of Gomorrah in 2006. He has been forced to be in hiding since then. He still requires a permanent police escort. In that context it speaks volumes for the insensitivity of Italy’s senior politicians who are also on the highest chair of authority to compound his miseries by turning him into a high-profile legal target on what appears to be flimsy grounds.
Contrary to expectations that Meloni’s legal team may withdraw the lawsuit after she took charge as PM, the hearing continues.
From Italy to Sweden, Hungary to France, the Far-Right is rearing its ugly head across Europe. In fact, Italy is locked in a bitter fight with France over allowing a humanitarian ship – Ocean Viking – loaded with 234 migrants, including 57 children from Libya to anchor in a port in Italy. The ship had to wander for three weeks under terrible circumstances seeking permission from Italian authorities to dock. There was a diplomatic crisis. France was unwilling to accept the migrants as existing rules say it is Italy’s responsibility since it was the nearest place for the ship to anchor. But, the Meloni government used loopholes in the marine laws to deny facilities to the ship on Italian soil in keeping with its Far-Right anti-migrants politics. In the end, France saved its reputation by agreeing to let the Ocean Viking dock in Toulon, on the French Riviera.
The two episodes lay bare the true character of the Far-Right that is on the rise in Europe. This does not augur well either for the European Union or the rest of the world.