March 16-22, 2006
Slant : Editor's LetterA Bad Situazione
But as hard as it is out here for an American truth pimp, this is nothing compared to what journalists face in Italy.
Ask a particular question, and you could have your phone lines tapped. Your home searched. Your finances ruined, along with your reputation.
Oh and you might be accused of being an accessory to murder.
This is what happened to Douglas Preston, a New Yorker contributor and a best-selling novelist (Relic, with Lincoln Child). Preston has been working with Italian journalist Mario Spezi on a nonfiction book about "The Monster of Florence," a serial killer who shot or stabbed 14 people between 1974 and 1985. The investigation became the largest and most expensive in Italian history. Preston and Spezi's book, due out in Italy next month, is critical of the police and prosecutors, specifically chief examining magistrate Giuliano Mignini and chief prosecutor Michele Giuttari.
On Valentine's Day, Preston flew to Italy to work with Spezi on the manuscript. A week later, he was arrested and brought before Giuliano Mignini himself.
Over the course of three hours, Preston was grilled senseless.
"When I explained that my activities as an investigative journalist were privileged," Preston wrote in a newsletter, "Mignini shouted that this wasn't about freedom of the press, but was about a criminal matter of the 'utmost seriousness.'" Preston was threatened with arrest unless he answered their questions.
Mignini played back phone conversations between Preston and Spezi, repeating them, asking about the "real meaning" behind certain words.
At one point, Preston asked if he was being charged with a crime. Mignini told him, yes: planting evidence to frame an innocent man, obstruction of justice and being an accessory to murder.
Preston had never encountered anything remotely like this before. "Not even in Cambodia," Preston told me via e-mail, "where I did a story for National Geographic on the looting of ancient Khmer temples by, among others, the Cambodian military."
Is this business as usual in Italy?
"Italy does not have true freedom of the press," Preston says. "Judges, prosecutors and politicians routinely sue journalists for libel, not necessarily to win cases but to ruin journalists financially and intimidate them. More rarely, troublesome journalists who can't be shut up by lawsuits are accused of crimes."
After the three-hour ordeal, Preston was given a grim choice: leave the country now and the charges will be suspended, or face arrest. He left. "With an indictment hanging over my head," he says, "I don't dare return to Italy for the publication of our book on April 19. I assumed that because I'm an American citizen that I would be immune to this kind of harassment. Was I naive."
Spezi, an Italian citizen, has it even worse. After Preston's interrogation, Spezi's apartment was tossed for a third time. According to Preston, the Italian police even leaked that Spezi was involved in the murders, and had links to a Satanic sect.
Preston made it back home safely and immediately starting getting the word out. (I heard about the case through the International Thriller Writers group; we're both members, but have never met.)
But he's extremely worried about his writing partner.
"Spezi is at grave risk," Preston wrote. "His financial health, his career, and his very freedom are at risk. Yesterday he wrote to me: Lo sono molto depresso, per avere fatto il nostro dovere, mi ritrovo in questa situazione."
Translation: "It is very depressing that, for having done my duty as a journalist, I find myself in this situation."
Fortunately, the story is circulating, largely through blogs, both here and in Italy. And recently two of Italy's largest newspapers have written about the case, and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine (Preston's home state) has asked the State Department to intervene.
This story is chilling, and makes me appreciate what we do have in the U.S. For now.
Every time someone tells me, "Asking that question helps the terrorists," or mentions financial costs of telling the truth, or, God help me, abuses the public trust with a bogus piece of journalism
I'm going to think of Mario Spezi.