Italian writer, journalist and political commentator Roberto Saviano is due in court in Rome on Tuesday (November 15th) for the first hearing in a libel suit brought against him by Italy’s new right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

The case is linked to an incident that took place before Meloni took the reins of power in Italy in October.

Meloni sues Saviano for comments he made on the news show Pulita Square in December 2020, during a discussion of the phenomenon of asylum seekers coming to her shores via small craft, in which he called her a “bastard” for her tough, anti-immigrant stance.

The judge commissioned a preliminary inquiry into the case that the ‘dubbed bastard’ had gone ‘beyond the rights of political criticism’ and gave the go-ahead for trial.

The trial is seen as a test case for Italian freedom of speech and the growing use of defamation charges as a way to gag the press.

Saviano is best known internationally for his investigative work from 2006 Gomorrah, on the organized criminal group of Naples, the Camorra. The book stoked the ire of crime bosses and led to numerous death threats, resulting in Saviano gaining police protection.

Italian director Matteo Garrone adapted the work, starring Saviano, into a fictional feature of the same name which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2008. The book also served as the basis for the high-end series of six seasons, produced by Sky Italia, Fandango, Cattleya and Beta and directed by Stefano Sollima, Francesca Comencini and Claudio Cupellini.

At the time of Saviano’s comments in 2020, the drowning of a six-month-old child when a dinghy he was traveling in capsized was in the news in Italy, after the Spanish NGO which rescued his mother decided to post a video showing his distress.

The child was among six people who died that night in a year while around 1,881 would perish trying to cross the Mediterranean by various routes, according to the UNHCR refugee agency.

In the months leading up to this event, the leader of Italy’s brother, Meloni, and the leader of the nationalist League party, Matteo Salvini, who is now a coalition partner in his government, had targeted ships charities patrolling the Mediterranean to rescue people in distress at sea, referring to them as “migrant taxis” and saying they should be sequestered and sunk.

Speaking of the dead child and his mother, Saviano railed against the couple saying, “You remember all that nonsense that was said about NGOs, about them being ‘sea taxis? », « cruises ». All that comes to mind are bastards. To Meloni, to Salvini, bastards, how could you? How was it possible to describe all this pain like that?

Saviano remains unrepentant about his comments despite the impending trial and has continued to harshly criticize Meloni and his new government, recently condemning his immigration policies as well as his recent enactment of a law implementing prison terms of up to at six years old. for organizers of illegal raves.

In a recent interview on Rome’s Radio Capital radio station, Saviano revealed that Salvino and new Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano had also filed defamation suits against him.

He implied that they were targeting him to warn other journalists who wanted to criticize members of their government and the parties of his coalition.

“These were all defamation complaints, related to the fact that I was expressing my very harsh criticism of them. They hit me to get the message across to my colleagues and above all to manipulate, make it seem that harsh and fierce criticism of a politician can be taken in the same context as a comment you make to an ordinary citizen,” he said.

“There’s another sneaky mechanism at play here, which is, ‘If you criticize me, you’re going against democracy itself because it’s the vote that allows me to do what I do. “So your behavior is illegitimate. It’s very dangerous because democracy is not based exclusively on voting, which is a fundamental and founding segment of democracy, but is based above all on respect for criticism,” he said. he continued.

“Behind this game there is something alarming and that is if you criticize me after the country is with me and I have the majority, you are wrong.”

Tuesday’s hearing comes amid a flare-up in debate over how best to deal with people trying to get to Europe from North Africa in small boats after Meloni’s government impeded three rescue vessels carrying hundreds of rescued migrants to disembark at its ports.

The new policy resulted in a ship being diverted to the French port of Toulon, after three weeks at sea, in a move that led to a diplomatic spat between France and Italy.

Writers’ association Pen International urged Meloni to drop the charges in an open letter published online and in the Italian newspaper La Stampa.

“As Prime Minister of Italy, continuing your action against him would send a chilling message to all journalists and writers in the country, who may no longer dare to speak out for fear of reprisals,” wrote the president of Pen International. , Burhan Sonmez.

“Saviano is not alone. We stand with him and will continue to campaign until all defamation charges against him are dropped and his right to peaceful expression of his views is confirmed once and for all.