The Guardian view on Giorgia Meloni’s Italy: the politics of ‘illiberal democracy’ | Editorial

According to the latest audit of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, Italy has tumbled down its international rankings. A crucial factor in its report was the desire of Giorgia Meloni’s radical right government to sell off a state-controlled news agency to a press baron – one who just happens to be an MP in her ruling coalition. But in one of the European Union’s most important member states, as Ms Meloni’s radical right coalition consolidates its grip on power, there are plenty of other reasons to fear for the future of free expression and media impartiality.

This week, a philosopher from Rome’s Sapienza University will become the latest public intellectual to appear in court, after being accused of defamation by a government figure. In a talk show, Donatella Di Cesare described the language used by the agriculture minister, Francesco Lollobrigida (Ms Meloni’s brother-in-law), as neo-Nazi in tone. Under Italy’s draconian defamation laws, she risks a substantial prison sentence if eventually found guilty in a criminal court.

Ms Di Cesare is far from an isolated case. Ms Meloni herself is pursuing an aggravated defamation case, on similar grounds, against an 81-year-old historian. She has also taken the writer and journalist Roberto Saviano through the courts, and has sued journalists at the leftwing newspaper Domani.

In broadcasting the picture is also bleak. Control of the state broadcaster, Rai, has for decades been seen as a political prize by incoming governments. But Ms Meloni’s administration appears to be ruthlessly abusing its new powers. The corporation’s director‑general, Giampaolo Rossi, is a close Meloni ally, an admirer of Viktor Orbán and a onetime apologist for Vladimir Putin.

A year after he was appointed, internal strife broke out into the open. Last week, exasperated journalists began a series of strikes partly over working conditions, but also in response to alleged editorial interference and pressure from Ms Meloni’s government and its placemen. At a press conference, Enrica Agostini, a senior political reporter, said that in 25 years at Rai she had “never experienced pressure and censorship like now”. Meanwhile, in April, one of Italy’s leading authors, Antonio Scurati, accused Rai of censorship after an invitation to deliver an anti-fascism talk to mark Italy’s Liberation Day was withdrawn at the last minute.

Ms Meloni’s high esteem for Mr Orbán, the self-styled champion of “illiberal democracy”, is well known. Since taking office 18 months ago, she has – unlike the Hungarian prime minister – positioned herself reassuringly in Europe’s political mainstream on issues such as Ukraine. But at home, her government’s domineering determination to police the public square, and bully critics, comes straight from the Orbán playbook. Museums and other cultural institutions have also been subjected to inappropriate and, at times, aggressive pressure from the government.

The sidelined Mr Scurati achieved international renown through his 2018 novel M: Son of the Century, based on the rise of Benito Mussolini. But in an interview following the election victory of Ms Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party in 2022, he distinguished between 20th-century fascism and the modern radical right, observing: “The real danger [now] concerns not the survival of democracy, but the quality of that democracy.” As his own recent experience appears to underline, it was a prescient judgment.

The Guardian

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