Italy's Echos Of Fascism As Immigrants Blamed For Disease, Rape

At the epicenter of Europe’s migrant crisis, Italy is facing a new burst of blatant racism that comes with a whiff of fascist nostalgia from the country’s ugly past.

A Forza Nuova rally in Rome in June
A Forza Nuova rally in Rome in June

A tragic story filled Italian newspapers earlier this week: a four-year-old girl from northern Italy died of malaria. Doctors had noted that the disease is rarely found in Italy, and the family had not traveled abroad. The next day a pair of conservative newspapers claimed they'd solved the mystery: "Immigrants' were responsible for the girl's fatal illness. "After Poverty, They Bring Disease" the Milan-based daily Libero splashed in its front-page headline Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Rome-based Il Tempo"s lead story was titled "So Here Is The Malaria of Immigrants."

The headlines are evidently what we all now have begun to call Fake News. But they also evoke racist tropes that trace back to Italy's fascist past where Jews and other so-called "outsiders' were accused of lacking hygiene and bearing exotic disease.

Today, the target of far-right hatred is immigrants, as Italy faces a decade-long influx of arrivals crossing by sea from North Africa to arrive on European soil. Though often the ultimate destinations are points farther north, the number of immigrants in Italy has more than doubled since 2007, according to the Italian statistics bureau ISTAT.

The newspaper headlines are not the only throwback to the worst chapter of Italian history. Following a high-profile gang rape last month of a Polish tourist in the eastern city of Rimini, in which several immigrant teenagers were arrested, the neo-fascist party Forza Nuova began circulating a new 1920s vintage-style poster around Italy that featured a dark-skinned man attacking a white woman. "Defend her from the invaders," the poster reads. "It could be your mother, wife, sister, daughter."

La Stampa reports that an anti-racism NGO called the poster a "blatant incitement to racial hatred." Leftist member of Parliament Giuseppe Civati called it a "shameful" reference to the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.

Forza Nuova, a long-established but largely fringe party, does not seem deterred, and in fact is eager to capitalize on the rising worries about immigration. The weekly L'Espresso reported that the party this week announced plans for a rally in Rome on October 28 to mark the 95th anniversary of the Mussolini-led "March on Rome" that ushered in two decades of fascist rule. Italy again reminds us that even when the past is dead, it may not be buried.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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