Italy’s justice minister is to send inspectors to Sicily following reports that prosecutors wiretapped hundreds of phone conversations involving at least 15 journalists reporting on migration in the central Mediterranean.
The Italian newspaper Domani revealed on Friday that magistrates in Trapani who were investigating sea rescue NGOs and charities for alleged complicity in people smuggling had wiretapped reporters’ phonecalls with rescuers and allegedly exposed the journalists’ sources.
The documents, seen by the Guardian, detail how prosecutors in Sicily secretly recorded conversations between reporters and charity staff in which they discussed travel details and confidential information connected to their articles.
Lawyers and watchdog organisations described the move as one of the most serious attacks on the press in Italian history. “This is a clear trampling of professional confidentiality. What’s next in this country, bugs in confessionals? It is a question of the integrity of democracy,” Carlo Verna, president of Italy’s Order of Journalists, told the Guardian.
As the row grew in Italy over the weekend, the justice minister, Marta Cartabia, called for scrutiny of the Trapani investigation and, according to sources close to the government, is sending inspectors to Sicily to look into the alleged violation of reporter’s rights.
Dozens of MPs have asked the government to intervene in the matter. Primo Di Nicola of the 5-Star Movement, a member of the parliamentary commission overseeing the public broadcaster RAI, told the Associated Press that he had proposed a bill to safeguard journalists from the wiretapping of calls with sources.
Several journalists, whose phone calls were secretly recorded by investigators in 2017, had exposed how Libyan human traffickers had been recruited by the Libyan coast guard, to which Italy had provided four patrol vessels following a cooperation agreement signed by the then interior minister, Marco Minniti, a former intelligence chief, with the leader of Libya’s UN-recognised government, Fayez al-Sarraj. Since the deal, the Libyan coastguard has routinely intercepted migrant dinghies at sea and escorted them back to Libya, where aid agencies say migrants and refugees suffer torture and abuse.
Freelance journalist and researcher Nancy Porsia was among those whose conversations were allegedly recorded by prosecutors in Trapani over the summer of 2017, collecting personal details and the names of her sources, as she investigated human trafficking on the other side of the Mediterranean. The investigators also tracked her movements using her mobile phone’s geolocation data.
“At the time, I gave the authorities and the police important information on the traffickers’ network, on their connivance with politicians in Libya,” Porsia said. “But it is clear that, while I was providing that information, they were intercepting my calls.”
With a journalist for the newspaper Avvenire, Nello Scavo, who also had conversations recorded by prosecutors, Porsia in 2019 revealed the presence of notorious human trafficker and Libyan coast guard commander Abd al-Rahman Milad, also known as Bija, at meetings in May 2017 with Italian officials in Sicily and Rome. The two were given police protection after receiving death threats from the trafficker.
Prosecutors in Trapani claim that the file containing the journalists’ wiretaps data was passed on to them by the former lead prosecutor of Trapani, and that they intend to ask a judge to destroy it.
Court documents seen by the Guardian also show the prosecutors in Ragusa investigating the crew of Mare Jonio, a NGO rescue ship accused of abetting illegal immigration, wiretapped phone conversations between Beppe Caccia, the vessel’s head of mission, and the Italian journalist Vera Mantengoli.