The Mafia Reporter With a Police Escort (and the 200 Journalists Like Him)

italy journalist

The Mafia Reporter With a Police Escort (and the 200 Journalists Like Him)

By Gaia Pianigiani

May 20, 2018
ROME — For many of his days over the past four years, Paolo Borrometi has lived in isolation, though he is barely ever alone. He has not walked through a park or by the beach in his native Sicily for years. He cannot go to a restaurant freely, or to a concert or the movies. He can’t drive a car alone, go shopping alone, or go out for dinner by himself.

Before heading to work as a reporter covering the mafia, he starts each morning with an espresso, a cigarette — and his police escort.

Angering the mafia as a journalist in Italy makes for a lonely life. And yet Mr. Borrometi, 35, is in good company. Almost 200 reporters in Italy live under police protection, making it unique among industrialized Western countries, advocacy groups say.

“None of us wants to be a hero or a model,” Mr. Borrometi told an assembly of high school students on a recent morning in Rome, where he now lives. “We just want to do our job and our duty, to tell stories.”

Yet murders connected to organized crime are rising in Italy, the authorities say, and international observers consider criminal networks the principal threat to journalists in Europe.

“Don’t stop writing, Paolo,” read an email Mr. Borrometi received two days after he was assaulted in 2014 outside his family’s country home in Sicily by two men wearing balaclavas. “Our countries need free and investigative journalism. You have my respect.”

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The note came from Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Maltese investigative journalist who was herself killed in a car-bomb attack last year, after exposing her island nation’s links to offshore tax havens and reporting on local politicians’ crimes for decades. When she died at 53, she had 47 lawsuits pending against her, including one from the country’s economy minister.

In addition to Ms. Caruana Galizia, who was killed in October, a 27-year-old reporter, Jan Kuciak, was killed along with his fiancée in Slovakia in February. He had also been investigating corruption with suspected ties to Italian mobsters.


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Students at the Terenzio Mamiani High School in Rome listened to a presentation by journalists about the risks of the profession.CreditNadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times
“There have already been two journalists killed by the mafia inside the European Union, both investigating mafia stories and stories that domestic governments were not looking into,” said Pauline Adès-Mével, who is responsible for the European desk at Reporters Without Borders, an advocacy group for press freedom.

“Italy is historically the country that has felt the mafia the most, and has a dozen of journalists under 24-hour police protection,” Ms. Adès-Mével said. “That doesn’t happen in other countries.”

Among those journalists is Lirio Abbate, a mafia expert with the magazine L’Espresso, who has been under protection for 11 years, since the police thwarted a bomb attack in front of his house in Palermo. Federica Angeli, a reporter with La Repubblica, and her family have been under police escort for five years. And Roberto Saviano, the author of “Gomorrah,” a best-selling book, movie and TV series about the Neapolitan crime syndicate, has been under escort since 2006.

For Mr. Borrometi, it took just a year of reporting on the secret businesses and clandestine political ties of the mafia in southeastern Sicily for his independent news website, La Spia (The Spy), before criminals menaced him. In five years, he got hundreds of death threats from local mobsters.

Mr. Borrometi, who trained as a lawyer, started writing for local papers when he was 17, inspired by a Sicilian investigative reporter, Giovanni Spampinato, who was killed by the mafia in the 1970s.

He started his own website five years ago. His first investigation, on mafia infiltrations among top officials in the town of Scicli, contributed to the government’s decision to dissolve city hall.

His articles pull no punches. They detail the connections between political powers and the mob, naming names, and accompanied by photographs. “People need to know who they are when they meet them at the bar,” he said.

At first, his articles prompted vandalism against him and late night phone calls. But things got physical after he began writing a series of stories that showed how Sicily’s largest fruit and vegetable market was controlled by mobsters.

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