CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) – A Sicilian journalist’s house was searched last week by Italian authorities and his telephone and computer hard drives were combed over. What was his offense? He wrote an article in March revealing leaked details about a probe into alleged police misconduct in the investigation following one of Italy’s most troubling and murky crimes, the car bombing of an anti-mafia judge in 1992.
The search of Salvo Palazzolo’s house in Palermo, the capital of Sicily, is just the latest troubling attack on press freedoms and journalists in Europe in the past year, media advocates say.
Nearly a year ago, on Oct. 16, 2017, investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in a car bomb on the small island nation of Malta, which is part of the European Union.
Galizia was a blogger whose reporting focused on corruption in Malta, a tax haven. She had exposed links between Malta and the so-called Panama Papers. She revealed that the wife of Malta’s president, Joseph Muscat, his energy minister and chief of staff held companies in Panama, according to the Associated Press.
Then on Feb. 21, another investigative journalist was killed, this time in Slovakia, another EU state.
Jan Kuciak and his fiancee were shot dead in their home. Police linked his killing to his investigations into tax evasion. When he was killed, Kuciak was working on an article that linked the Italian mafia to people close to Prime Minister Robert Fico, the AP reported. Fico resigned after Kuciak’s murder.
In a report on the state of the press this year, Reporters Without Borders noted that Fico had called journalists “filthy anti-Slovak prostitutes” and “idiotic hyenas.”
“The freedom of the press isn’t doing very well today,” said Carlo Bonini, an Italian journalist, in a weekend interview with the La Repubblica newspaper. He recently wrote a book chronicling the death of Galizia, the Maltese journalist, and corruption in Malta.
There is worry across Europe of an erosion of trust in the media and a rise in attacks on journalists, as exemplified by the raid on the home of the Sicilian journalist Palazzolo.
“In all of Italy there’s a very hard attack on the freedom of information and against free reporters who by doing their work guarantee the right for all citizens to be informed,” Italy’s national journalism union, the Federazione Nazionale della Stampa Italiana, said in a statement on Sunday about the raid on Palazzolo’s home.
The union called the raid on Sept. 13 a violation of a journalist’s confidential sources.
Reporters Without Borders, an international Paris-based group representing journalists, also condemned the search and said journalists need to be allowed to do their work “without being harassed by the authorities.”
It added that journalists “should never be treated like the criminals they are investigating.”
Prosecutors in Catania, who ordered the search, did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment Monday from Courthouse News.
The Justice Minister Alfonso Bonafede said ministry inspectors would examine the matter, Italian news media reported.
Palazzolo has spent years writing about the 1992 murder of Paolo Borsellino, an Italian anti-mafia magistrate and judge, and five police bodyguards who were with him. His reporting alleges that not only the mafia but also accomplices within the police force may have been involved in the judge’s death, Reporters Without Borders said.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled Thursday in Caltanissetta, a Sicilian city, into accusations that three police officers were involved in a ploy to get the wrong person to confess in the Borsellino killing.
On Sunday, Palazzolo urged other journalists to join him and keep working on a number of high-profile and still murky murders in Italy that may involve links between organized criminal groups and state authorities.
In his plea, Palazzolo said there were too many unknown aspects to these high-profile cases and that it is the duty of journalists, lawyers, the family members of victims, magistrates and citizens to keep asking questions.
“This is why the work of journalists must be defended and protected,” he wrote.
The toxic atmosphere for journalists was made clear in recent weeks in Germany.
Far-right protesters hurled insults and physically attacked about a dozen journalists covering protests in Chemnitz, according to Reporters Without Borders.
The east German city of Chemnitz has been the scene of violent clashes between far-right protesters, who are angry over immigrants, and counter-protesters. The riots were sparked by the stabbing death of a man.
The attacks on the media have come in other forms too.
In the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, the Czech president, brandished a fake Kalashnikov rifle with the words “For Journalists” on it during a news conference in October 2017. Zeman – who admires U.S. President Donald Trump and echoes his dislike for journalists – routinely calls the media biased.
Advocates warn that press freedom is under even more serious siege in Poland and Hungary.
Last week, the European Parliament opened sanctions proceedings against Hungary, in part because of its treatment of journalists.
“The country is a graveyard for press and media freedom,” said Lutz Kinkel, managing director of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, in a statement.
Media advocates say critical news outlets in Hungary have been forced to close, independent journalists are denied access to government operations and the country’s media laws restrict freedom of opinion and expression.
In April, a report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe condemned the publication of a list of people – many of them journalists – allegedly working “to topple the government.”
Back in Italy, the new government has attacked the media and journalists.
In one high-profile instance, Matteo Salvini, Italy’s new interior minister and the right-wing leader of an anti-immigrant and anti-EU party known as the League, threatened to take away police protection for the well-known investigative journalist Roberto Saviano. Saviano has been critical of Salvini.
In June, Salvini said he would look into whether there were still grounds for Saviano’s police protection. He then filed a defamation lawsuit against the journalist.
Saviano has written extensively on the activities of the ‘Ndrangheta, the mafia-like criminal groups based in Calabria, at the southern end of the Italian peninsula.
He is one of 10 journalists in Italy under constant police protection.