The journalist who took on the Italian mob—and scared it to death

The power of speaking up.
The power of speaking up.
Image: Reuters/Claudio Bresciani
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Monday (Nov. 10) marked the end of a trial against two mafiosos, Francesco Bidognetti and Antonio Iovine, and their lawyer, Michele Santonastaso, who were accused of threatening a writer during a court proceeding in 2008. The lawyer was found guilty, but the bosses were acquitted. So why does the trial represent an important step forward in the fight against organized crime?

In 2006 journalist Roberto Saviano wrote a book called Gomorrah about the Camorra, unmasking the mafia-like organization thriving in his native Campania, Italy. The book quickly became a best-seller. Like any mafia group, the Camorra swears by the code of silence, or omertà, and takes a dim view of anyone who exposes its secrets. Even so, its reaction to Gomorrah was unprecedented.

The criminal organization decided Saviano had to pay for speaking up—with his life. And so, at the age of 26, he found himself in a kind of Italian witness protection program, one designed for targets of organized crime. Saviano writes:

I still remember the day that I returned—free for the last time—by train from a literary festival in Northern Italy to Naples’s central station and was met by the military police. They put me in an armored car. I didn’t talk. I kept my gaze on my feet as if I had been arrested, though they were saving my life. They said to me, “Sir, we’re sorry, but we must put you under protection.”

Gomorrah wasn’t the first book on the mafia. But what set it apart, what made it dangerous to the mafia bosses, were two elements. First Gomorrah hit the Camorra in the wallet, by focusing on the foreign and domestic business of organized crime. Second, it was a smash hit, capturing the public’s attention and imagination. It sold over ten million copies around the world and became an award-winning movie. Its impact was impossible for the mafia to ignore.

As journalist Eugenio Scalfari points out in the Italian-language Repubblica, Saviano changed the way Italians thought about mafia organizations: they were no longer merely criminal cabals, but gigantic, malignant influencers on the economy and politics of the country. They came to be seen as a force that hinders Italy’s development through corruption, tax evasion, and illegal labor, and could be blamed for many of its woes.

That is why, in 2008, during a landmark murder trial against the Camorra, two of the organization’s bosses threatened Saviano in open court. Of course, in true mafia style, the bosses wouldn’t be the triggermen. Instead, during the tribunal, they had their lawyer read a menacing letter that listed Saviano amongst those they would hold responsible for influencing the court’s verdict.

In typical mafia fashion, the letter didn’t contain any explicit threats. But those accustomed to the mafia’s linguistic tendencies could easily read between the lines. In the letter, Saviano, eerily referred to as “il buon Saviano,” “the good Saviano,” is repeatedly called a “prezzolato,” or “mercenary” journalist (or “pseudo-journalist”).

Quartz obtained the full text of the letter. In reviewing it, the mafia’s threat against Saviano was made clear by their quoting Saviano himself in the very letter that threatened him:

“…vogliono soprattutto silenzio, minimizzazione, vogliono che lo sguardo vada altrove…

“They want silence most of all, [to] downplay, they want an averted gaze,” Saviano had written. He dared to defy what they wanted by doing the exact opposite: giving them infamy and attention and focusing the gaze of the world upon them.

On Monday, a court acquitted the two bosses for threatening the writer, but the lawyer who read their letter was found guilty, and given a year’s sentence, suspended. The logic is hard to grasp—the bosses’ threats were delivered but not made?—and Saviano himself called it a half-victory.

But while the bosses’ acquittal is disappointing to many, it’s important to keep in mind that the mere fact that this case was brought is, in many ways, a victory.

Admitting that the threats happened—regardless of  the outcome—is a welcome change. Because Saviano scared the mob, he exercised the strongest, and perhaps the only weapon the public has against organized crime: he did not avert his gaze, or choose to downplay the truth. He spoke up.