Acclaimed Italian writer Roberto Saviano is in court this month facing defamation charges from Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. With this essay, Saviano stands by his words, and his right to use them.
Italian writer Roberto Saviano is facing defamation charges from Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Two years ago, before she was elected, Saviano called Meloni and her right-wing ally Matteo Salvini "bastards" for demanding that Italy refuse to help save would-be migrants stranded at sea.
ROME —I stand in this courtroom today indicted for my harsh criticism of Giorgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini, whom I hold responsible for pushing their political propaganda upon the most desperate and vulnerable and least able to defend themselves: refugees.
It is a propaganda that not only attacks people seeking safety far from their countries battered by war, poverty and environmental destruction, but also violently lashes out against the NGOs attempting to rescue them in the Mediterranean before — or sometimes, tragically, after — the sea turns into their grave.
I find it odd that a writer is put on trial for the words he or she shares, however harsh they may be, while helpless people continue to suffer atrocious violence and relentless lies.
And yet, I see an opportunity in this situation: that we can finally exorcise the most insidious of fears, the fear that having an opinion contrary to the majority means having an opinion that is not legitimate, that standing against the majority supporting this government means having a problem with justice.
There's the risk that this government intends to lead us toward what Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano called "democratura": an apparently democratic regime that in fact acts in an illiberal way, lashing out at its most vocal critics through lawsuits and personal attacks.
I am a writer: my only tool is words. With my words I try to persuade, to convince, to engage. After all, Homer himself taught us: persuasion has no other temple than words, and its altar is in the nature of men. And in fact, words are precisely the reason why I stand in this courtroom, where I am accused of crossing the very thin line that demarcates permissible invective from what is called defamation.
An infant lost
In December 2020, I was in a television studio when a video was shown of a woman, Haijay, who had just been rescued from a sinking vessel by volunteers from the NGO ship Open Arms. Haijay was screaming obsessively, "I've lost my baby. I've lost my baby."
There are no life jackets for infants. Rescuers immediately dove into the sea and later resurfaced with the baby. But he was dead, drowned, his lungs filled with water. Faced with this scene, the only possible salvation from dehumanization seemed to me to list all the lies that had been said, and continue to be said, about and against these desperate people and those who care to rescue them at sea, insulting them with words like “migrant taxi,” “cruise,” and “free ride.”
In front of the deaths, the drownings, the indifference, the misinformation - only a little more than 10 percent of migrants are actually rescued by NGOs -, I could not keep quiet. Faced with that mother who lost her child, I could not accept it. So, speaking up for that part of Italy that is horrified by this propaganda and for the rescuers who have had to endure attacks time and again, I said: “You bastards, how could you?”
When invective is necessary
That is, how do you find the recklessness to isolate and defame, to depict as pirate ships what are actually ambulances at sea, spread lies, poison a debate that should instead be addressed with depth and knowledge? Mine was not an emotional response: it was meant to be an invective. Shouted out.
Only a few days ago, two children died, burned alive, on a boat.
Indeed I feel that I have used words even too cautiously, that I have expressed outrage too rarely. It is not political opinion to let people drown, it is not political opinion to discredit rescue ships. It is infamy. Above all, it is inhumane. In front of that video and those screams I felt the need to be human.
Only a few days ago, two children died, burned alive, on a boat. Right-wing politicians try hard to stop the NGOs: in the last five years there have been 20 investigations against them. No Italian company, not even those denounced by journalists as close to criminal organizations, has received such treatment. No factory where work-related deaths occurred has had so many investigations. And yet, despite these investigations, no allegations have ever been validated.
Meanwhile, more and more lies are being spread about and threats aimed against those whose work is rescuing people at sea, pushed by public figures like Giorgia Meloni, who has since become Italy's Prime Minister, who proposes to sink NGO ships accusing them of being pirates. And so people continue to die at sea, their eyes glazed over, their lungs full of water. People die at sea while the NGOs, I remind you, always acting under authorization from the Italian Coast Guard, try to rescue as many as they can across the seas of Europe.
Migrants disembark in the port city of Reggio Calabria in southern Italy
As a writer, I feel it is my intimate duty to defend freedom of expression. And I will do so by not hiding behind a comfortable, safe, approved and harmless dialectic. Throughout my career I have chosen to use words to directly confront power, whether criminal or political. I have always chosen to defend my words with my body, unlike many politicians who have used the shield of immunity when indicted.
On the contrary, I have always rejected the possibility of a safe haven in that free zone between the law and the individual, because I still think, perhaps naively, that justice is not something to be protected from, but rather that which ensures protection for all. Justice cannot be reduced to a weapon at the disposal of this or that politician. Justice is a serious matter. Indeed, I would say sacred.
We were thirsty and you let us drown, we were hungry and you defamed us, we were strangers and you rejected us
What I feel like promising here in this courtroom is that I will never stop using all the means that speech and democracy grant me to analyze, stigmatize, and refute this shameful discourse. Pope Francis said, "The exclusion of migrants is scandalous, it is criminal ... it makes them die before us."
In one of the most beautiful images in the Gospel of Matthew, Christ says, "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me." From the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea the words we hear are: "We were thirsty and you let us drown, we were hungry and you defamed us, we were strangers and you rejected us."
It is in the name of this pain that I chose my words, and it is in the name of this choice that I stand today in a courtroom.
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