RNW is in the process of shifting its focus to promoting freedom of speech in regions where it is under threat. So we’re publishing a series of portraits of men and women around the world who have stood up for the right to speak their minds. Today, Italian investigative journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi.
Angelo van Schaaik in Rome
“I am afraid neither of the law nor of death,” insists journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi. He is the author of 'Sua Santità. Le carte segrete di Benedetto XVI' (His Holiness. The Secret Papers of Benedict XIVth), in which he publishes confidential Vatican documents, including letters from the pope. “I was frightened,” he says. “For months, I carried the documents I had on a USB stick hung around my neck. I was always looking over my shoulder. The Vatican’s agents are active everywhere in Italy.
'Sua Santità' had a huge impact on Italy when it was published in May of this year. This is a country where freedom of speech is constantly under threat. Every time a journalist makes embarrassing revelations about a politician, parliament leaps into action and attempts to introduce measures further restricting the media.
It’s a country where a book was withdrawn from sale because it revealed historic facts damaging to the powerful Roman Catholic church. Authors Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti also claim that the Vatican put pressure on their publisher Mondadori not to renew their contracts in 2002 because they too made use of historic facts embarrassing for the church. Mondadori is owned by former Italian Prime Minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi.
To publish the Pope’s personal papers in such a country is almost an act of resistance. Public curiosity about the secret workings of the Vatican has sent sales of 'Sua Santità' soaring. It’s topped Italy’s bestseller lists for weeks.
But criticism of the book has also been fierce. A senior Vatican official, Monsignor Giovanni Angelo Becciu, accused Nuzzi of “immoral behaviour of unprecedented seriousness”. Senator Maurizio Gasparri of Berlusconi’s PDL party has called for Nuzzi’s prosecution: “Correspondence is private; this is a violation of the constitution. He has committed a crime and must face the consequences.” The senator is campaigning for the Italian judiciary to take action, so far without success.
Nuzzi has defended himself vigorously, insisting that the publication of documents obtained from ‘Maria’, his anonymous source within the Vatican, was not against the law. His publisher Chiarelettre, which is famous – or notorious – for releasing controversial books, said in a statement that Gianluigi Nuzzi is doing nothing more than his job. And that: “these attacks on an author and publisher are simply attempts to discredit him”. The publisher goes on to express outrage at political attempts to influence the judiciary to take action. “This is an attempt to intimidate and prevent other journalists from making unwelcome revelations.
Nuzzi was also threatened with legal action by the Vatican in January of this year. This followed his publication of letters to Pope Benedict from Monsignor Maria Vigano, the Number 2 in the Vatican hierarchy. In the letters, Vigano pleaded with the Pope not to be transferred after he had sounded the alarm about widespread corruption in the Vatican’s accounting department.
This threat of legal action is a tactic also used by Berlusconi during his years in office. He would claim huge sums in damages from papers that threatened to make unwelcome revelations about his or his companies’ conduct. Even though these cases had no chance of succeeding, the prohibitive cost of fighting them in court meant papers would refrain from publication. Italy’s wealthy have a habit of winning their lawsuits…
The publisher Chiarelettere also poses the rhetorical question: Should a journalist who discovers that the Minster of Economic Affairs has had secret talks with the head of the Vatican’s Bank to prevent the church being charged property tax, keep that information to himself?”
“The butler did it”. That was the Vatican’s speedily reached conclusion after Nuzzi laid bare the intrigues and power struggles within the walls of the Holy City with the help of an inside informant. The Pope’s personal servant Paolo Gabriele was arrested and taken into custody by the Vatican’s own secretive judicial system, which is independent of the Italian state judiciary.
The storm around the scandal, which quickly became known as Vatileaks, seemed to die down after his arrest. But it appears he may just be a small fish in this murky sea. There are believed to be some 20 other whistleblowers secretly leaking information about the Vatican state. A special commission has been set up with the aim of keeping any further Vatileaks under control. But that’s unlikely to be enough to prevent journalists such as Gianluigi Nuzzi from publishing any fresh documents they may receive from ‘Maria’.