Research, travel, and legal dispatches from my Fulbright year in Bologna, Italy.
Above: Italy ranks worse than most of its neighbors, including several EU-hopeful Balkan states, in Reporters Without Borders’ latest global press freedom survey. White states are ranked the highest, followed by yellow states, then orange, and then red.
BOLOGNA — Physical aggression, attacks on property and scores of frivolous defamation lawsuits have caused Italy to drop 24 places in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index, an annual review of press freedom conducted by Reporters Without Borders in 180 countries worldwide.
The organization now ranks Italy No. 73 in the world for press freedom, down from No. 49 in 2014. During the first 10 months of 2014, it recorded 43 cases of physical aggression, 7 arson attacks on homes and cars, and 129 unjustified lawsuits — up from 84 unjustified lawsuits in 2013.
“Elected public figures filed most of these lawsuits, which constitute a form of censorship,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.
The ranking puts Italy behind most of Western Europe and even behind several Balkan states, such as Bosnia and Herzergovina, that are seeking EU membership.
Journalists in Italy are often sued for fairly routine investigative techniques, according to some preliminary Fulbright findings. Lawsuits are brought for “asking leading questions”, “raising questions” of impropriety, or “hinting at ties” with organized crime. In other cases, columnists have been sued for use hyperbolic language that was clearly intended as a rhetorical device.
In an interesting twist, the United States now occupies Italy’s old spot at No. 49. It was previously No. 46. Reporters Without Borders attributed the relatively low ranking to judicial harassment of New York Times national security reporter James Risen; arbitrary arrests of at least 15 journalists during protests in Ferguson, Missouri; and failure to adopt a federal shield law.
In fact, the 2015 rankings come amidst a global decline in press freedom all fronts, Reporters Without Borders said.
“The 2015 World Press Freedom Index highlights the worldwide deterioration in freedom of information in 2014,” the organization explained. “Beset by wars, the growing threat from non-state operatives, violence during demonstrations and the economic crisis, media freedom is in retreat on all five continents.”
Even so, Italy was identified as one of the most “striking developments” in the 2015 index under the “fallers” category.