Sara Manisera: the challenges of investigative journalism
Investigative journalists, in addition to the risks of the trade, often incur libel lawsuits, SLAPPs, etc. Especially if, like Sara Manisera, they deal with sensitive issues such as organised crime.
By Sielke Kelner
Sara Manisera is a freelance journalist who is part of the Fada collective of journalists, photographers, and authors. She writes about gender issues, minorities, agriculture, the environment, and civil society. Her contributions have been published by various international newspapers including Al Jazeera, Liberation, and The Nation. She has written “Tales of slavery and struggle in the countryside”, a book that originated from her degree thesis in the sociology of organised crime in Rosarno, in the province of Reggio Calabria. Since 2023 she has been affiliated with Bertha Challenge Investigative Journalist Fellow, a grant that is allowing her to devote herself to a year-long project on the wheat supply chain. On September 1, 2022, the Municipality of Abbiategrasso adopted a resolution to initiate an aggravated criminal defamation lawsuit against her. A sentence pronounced in Cutro in June 2022, during the acceptance speech of the Diego Tajani award, about the pervasiveness of mafia infiltration even in municipalities such as that of Abbiategrasso, did not go down well with the council of the municipality in Lombardia.
Is this the first defamation lawsuit you have faced?
Yes, it was notified to me in January 2023. I was not reported for a published article, but for a sentence I uttered in a speech in which I quoted the Municipality of Abbiategrasso during an awards ceremony in front of students. That day I had in front of me some classes from Cutro who have probably only heard of ‘Ndrangheta and Calabria in their life, of the south in a certain way. I wanted to show them that the mafias are not only in the south, but also in the north. And they have been infiltrating the northern economy for decades. The municipal administration of Abbiategrasso has not asked for any rectification of the sentence I have pronounced; it did not invite a public discussion on the subject. This would have been the most appropriate response from a local politician attentive to the infiltration of mafia-type organisations and which could have been offended by the sentences pronounced in Cutro.
Why do you think the council of Abbiategrasso felt resentful of your comment?
I do not know. I tell you the facts. We are talking about a territory that is in the south-west of Milan, next to Gaggiano, Corsico, Trezzano, Buccinasco. Territories that, for over 30 years, have seen not infiltration, but colonisation by the ‘Ndrangheta and, in the Abbiategrasso area, by bosses linked to Cosa Nostra. Various members of gangs linked to Cosa Nostra have been sent to this area on compulsory stays. In this area, there are parts of the economy that also feed on the laundering of capital from illicit activities by mafia-type organisations. This is not my own theory, the sentences say it, the operations directed by the District Anti-Mafia Directorates such as Crimine-Infinito, which acknowledged the presence of the mafias in the North. Now, if you refuse to see or to tell about it, quoting Professor Nando dalla Chiesa, “Either you are an idiot, and therefore you are an accomplice in some way, or you are actually an accomplice”. Anyway, I think that there is very little talk about public ethics and the role that politicians should have, that is, politicians with a straight back who should not go and have coffee with what is considered a member of a gang or a clan. As for the Municipality of Abbiategrasso, I do not know why they felt their image was damaged in 2023. There are other ways to protect the reputation and image of one’s territory, starting with serious environmental policies aimed at effectively protecting the territory and the landscape.
Let’s talk about gag complaints. How has this lawsuit affected your work and personal life?
Thanks to the solidarity of civil society and the mobilisation that took place for my case, several people from FNSI, Articolo21, Ossigeno, Libera, and Un Ponte Per took action. There have been many public and non-public voices that have come to my defense. Ossigeno per l’Informazione granted me pro bono defence. Many other colleagues do not receive this type of media coverage or, as it is very often referred to, media escort. When you are alone and do not have a media escort, these lawsuits have a huge impact, both on your work – because they intimidate, stop, and discourage you – but also on mental health because they are a constant concern. All the papers, the documents you have to collect to defend yourself; trials that go on for months, years. This has a greater impact on freelancers, because it is one thing to have a publisher behind you with an editor, a lawyer, a team that supports you; another thing to be alone.
What would we need to counter this phenomenon?
Definitely free legal coverage for all journalists who suffer this type of lawsuit. An ad hoc fund for compensation for damages.
What is the relationship between the press and politics, including local?
I think the state of the relationship between the local and national press and local and national institutions is not the best. I see, at the local level, an absence of journalism-journalism, quoting Giancarlo Siani, journalism that should question power. Local journalism, with rare exceptions, is a megaphone of power. This happens because there is no money; because local newspapers very often have publishers who work hand in hand with local business and therefore with local politics; because there is a lack of real independence of the journalist, also due to business models.
It goes without saying that political power that is not used to being questioned by the press resorts to lawsuits when subjected to criticism, because it is the easiest weapon. The lawsuit is the weapon used to silence and intimidate. It’s not just a warning to that particular journalist who writes, talks, and says certain things. It is also a warning to other journalists.
These gag complaints filed by people in power reveal a lot about the state of journalism in Italy and about the relationship between the press and institutions. But also on the freedom of speech and the right to inform, or Article 21 of our Constitution. The mafias are not just a judicial phenomenon, they are a social, cultural, economic, and political phenomenon and therefore we need to talk about them and I believe that journalists today have the role of informing and explaining to citizens also the forms and the metamorphosis of criminal organisations. As Paolo Borsellino said, talk about it. Talk about it on television, talk about it on the radio. But talk about it. If journalists do not tell the public that mafias today launder their money in costructions, that the mafias have also entered the municipalities of the north, who is going to do it?
What does it mean for you to be a journalist and in particular an independent investigative journalist?
I believe that what I carry on together with the Fada collective is committed journalism. It is militant journalism with a political gaze. It is non-neutral journalism, because it takes the time to look at the ecological and social fractures of certain societies and certain issues. I always give this example, quoting French colleague Salomé Saqué, who explains that deciding to give the floor to the CEO of Total, who is responsible for environmental crimes in Uganda that will force millions of people to leave the country, or to the environmentalists who are fighting against that project means making a precise choice. So, choosing to tell the story of the struggles of environmentalists in Uganda or Iraq means bringing their voices to the centre of public debate.