‘Defending democracy is paramount’: Rula Jebreal warns against Meloni rule

The first time Rula Jebreal came face to face with Giorgia Meloni was for a TV debate in November 2016.

It was the day after the US presidential election, six years before Meloni became prime minister, and the pair were invited on to Piazzapulita, a talkshow broadcast on the privately owned television channel, La7, to discuss the victory of Donald Trump.

Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy, a party with neofascist roots, was at the time languishing on the political fringes, embraced Trump’s win. Jebreal, an Israeli-born Palestinian and the first black Muslim woman to present an Italian TV news show had moved to the country as a student, gained Italian citizenship alongside Israeli, and become known for calling out racism, misogyny and extremist groups.

The tension between the two was already palpable when the debate descended into a fiery clash of words: Jebreal challenged Meloni over Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and the rise in racism brought about by his campaign, as well as the violence unleashed at his rallies. Meloni rolled her eyes when reminded about Italy’s fascist past and the violence imposed by Benito Mussolini’s regime. She dismissed her opponent as “crazy” when Jebreal said: “I understand it must be difficult to talk to a black woman like me”.

The debate marked Jebreal out as a nemesis of Italy’s farright, while giving insight into the ruthless streak that the country’s future prime minister would increasingly come to wield against her opponents.

Jebreal claims their confrontation set the wheels in motion for a years-long campaign of online attacks and intimidation over her criticism of Meloni and the Brothers of Italy, including being landed with a defamation lawsuit from her soon after Meloni’s coalition triumphed in the September 2022 general election.

“She had clearly lost the debate,” Jebreal, who now lives in the US, said during a visit to Italy. “She was attempting to rehabilitate Italy’s fascist history – a bloody history she had never totally disavowed.” Meloni did not take this well, she said. “She just dashed out of the studio.”

Jebreal has not been the only target. Since coming to power, Meloni’s government has been accused of making strategic use of defamation suits to silence journalists and public intellectuals. Her government has also been accused of exerting its influence over the state broadcaster, Rai, and other Italian media. In April, Rai came under fire for alleged censorship after the abrupt cancellation of an anti-fascist monologue that was due to be read by author Antonio Scurati. Meloni attacked Scurati on social media while accusing the left of “crying at the regime”.

Meloni’s growing antipathy towards Jebreal was made clearer in 2020, when during a national TV talkshow she took issue over the journalist being invited to read her monologue against violence against women at that year’s Sanremo song festival “without cross-examination … at taxpayers’ expense”.

The defamation case was filed over a tweet by Jebreal alleging Meloni had said asylum seekers were criminals who wanted to “replace” white Christians. Meloni sued Jebreal for allegedly attributing “very serious statements and political positions” to her. Jebreal is under formal investigation for defamation, although judges have not yet ruled whether the case will go to court.

Fabio Rampelli, a Brothers of Italy politician and vice-president of the lower house of parliament, is also suing Jebreal for defamation over a tweet about a neofascist commemorative ceremony in January in Rome during which hundreds of men performed the fascist salute.

Rampelli has confirmed he was present at the event’s official ceremony, which marked the 46th anniversary of the killing of three militants from the neofascist Italian Social Movement that eventually morphed into Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. But he denied being there during the fascist display. He has accused Jebreal of spreading what he regarded as “misinformation”.

Jebreal, who grew up in an orphanage in Jerusalem, believes the legal action is part of a broader attempt by Meloni’s government to suppress dissent.

Meloni has nurtured a more moderate, pragmatic image since taking power, earning herself approval from world leaders.

But people should not be fooled, warned Jebreal, who fears Meloni is slowly dismantling the foundations of democracy.

“Growing up in the Middle East, I would watch on TV as dictators fed propaganda and paranoia to keep a population fearful and docile. They would promote conspiracy theories, criminalise the opposition, and suppress the press for simply asking questions. It is the same playbook from the Middle East to Moscow to Hungary. And this is precisely Meloni’s strategy for Italy.”

Jebreal warns that the government’s violent words may lead to actual violence. She pointed to a recent brawl in parliament between deputies from Meloni’s coalition and those from the opposition, with a member of the Five Star Movement needing medical assistance. Instead of condemning the violence, Meloni said her deputies had been provoked.

“That sent a chilling message,” said Jebreal. “It normalised violence.”

Meloni is also ardently pushing a bill that would allow a prime minister to be directly elected, as long as a candidate has the support of at least 55% of seats. She argues that this would help end Italy’s revolving-door governments. But critics have compared the bill to a constitutional change made by Mussolini and fear that it could lead Italy towards authoritarianism. Jebreal believes the move is part of Meloni’s attempt to “consolidate power” while eroding the checks and balances on the office of the president of the republic.

Jebreal regularly returns to Italy, a country she loves and still calls home. “Italy taught me that defending democracy is paramount,” she said. “It is a country reborn from the ashes of fascism. To witness any backslide towards authoritarianism is thus terrifying.”

The Guardian