International groups criticise Italy for targetting NGOs

Association

On 22nd October 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women its causes and consequences, and the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice wrote a letter to the Italian government expressing concern on the pressure on spaces for women in Rome. The statement followed the decision of the municipality of Rome to evict the occupants of “Casa Internazionale delle donne”, a building housing several non-governmental organisations providing a safe space for women, over the non-payment of €833,000 in back rent. The hub had been in the building for over 30 years during which the women of the house had contributed to renovate the building. The decision raised strong criticism across the country.

In their letter, the UN experts stated: 

Beginning in April 2017, the municipal government began efforts to collect years of back rent from a number of these organizations, based on rental calculations that failed to take into account their not-for-profit status, their value to the community, or in some cases, significant independent expenditures for the restoration and maintenance of the buildings in question. These efforts have been ongoing despite the Italian Law n. 117 of 2017, which provides in Article 71 that Government entities may lend their real estate facilities and other property that is not needed for institutional purposes, free of charge to “third sector” organisations that perform a service of public utility.”

In separate developments, In November 2018 the Italian authorities have impounded one of the last civilian search and rescue (SAR) boats, the Aquarius, led by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee. Authorities also froze MSF assets in Italy and imposed a fine of €460,000. Twenty four people are currently under investigation by the prosecutor’s office of Catania for ‘‘trafficking and the illegal management of waste”, the food and clothes from their missions. MSF commented on the allegations:

"The Public Prosecutor's Office claimed that this waste should be considered as hazardous medical waste and managed according to appropriate procedures, but MSF has always followed standard procedures based on regular contracts with port agents and waste disposal companies at the port, so we are serene and trust in the course of justice. As doctors, even the suspicion of such a crime is unacceptable: saving lives is our first and only mission." (Translated from Italian)

The prosecutor had previously made public statements on alleged cooperation between search and rescue NGOs and human smugglers that have so far been found unfounded. The organisation is preparing an appeal. Karline Kleijer, MSF’s head of emergencies said

"After two years of defamatory and unfounded allegations of collusion with human traffickers, judicial investigations, and bureaucratic obstacles against our humanitarian work, we are now accused of organised crime aimed at illicit waste trafficking.”

Recently, the EU Agency for fundamental rights and several UN special rapporteurs have condemned the criminalisation of search and rescue NGOs, as well as organisations and citizens providing support to migrants. The statement added:

“Saving lives is not a crime. Protecting human dignity is not a crime. Acts of solidarity and humanity should not be prosecuted.”

A report by the Transnational Institute warns that the space for solidarity to migrants is shrinking.

Peaceful Assembly

A governmental decree on security is currently being discussed in the Italian parliament. The decree covers a broader range of policy areas from migration to terrorism. It foresees the tightening of several regulations concerning public security, including some that might negatively impact freedom of assembly. For example, the decree imposes imprisonment from 2 to 12 years for a roadblock, if carried out by more than one person, a technique used in the past by some social movements as a form of protest.

The lawyer Claudio Novaro commented

We are faced with yet another crackdown that will produce more imprisonment for members of social movements, who will have to deal with repression made more intense and effective by rules like this one. [...]

In the case of the new roadblock offence, it is possible to impose prison sentences, as mentioned above, from 2 to 12 years, much higher than those provided for offences which, according to the collective conscience, indeed appear more serious." (Translated from Italian)

The decree also aggravates the penalties for individuals who occupy buildings to 3 years and from 2 to 4 years if more than five people commit the act. The penalty for promoters and organisers is also increased. 

According to La rete dei numeri pari, a network of Italian CSOs and social movements working on poverty and inequality in Italy, those movements that use mutualism to raise the issue of the right to affordable living had witnessed a reaction from authorities that is becoming progressively more aggressive. The network wrote: 

Housing occupations are emblematic places [...] representing forms of struggle sanctioned over time in an increasingly aggressive way: Article 5 in 2014 [introducing] special surveillance measures against activists, the Minniti decree with its article 11 in 2017, the circular Salvini of September 1 and now the security decree being converted into law. If we add to this the court sentences condemning the Ministry of the Interior [...] for the failure to clear the occupied buildings [...] it is clear the level of attack against a movement that through the practices of repossession intended to affirm a denied right such as housing, and indirectly also that to income." (Translated from Italian)

Expression

Italy has traditionally ranked relatively poorly on international freedom of expression indexes due to the concentration of the press and the life-threatening danger that some journalists face when reporting on organised crime. In July 2018, the Index on Censorship warned that reporting on the mafia is becoming more dangerous after the interior minister threatened to remove protection from journalist Roberto Saviano “as part of an evaluation of how Italians spend their money”. In 2017, 196 journalists were reported to be receiving police protection.

Verbal attacks by members of the governing coalition against the press are also becoming more common in Italy. In November 2018, Italy's communications authority condemned the attack on the press by the Five Star Movement's Alessandro Di Battista who called journalists "prostitutes and hacks". It stated: 

Every attack on press organs risks harming the Constitutional principle of free expression of thought that is at the foundation of pluralism of information, and freedom to report and criticise.