When you are facing a very grave crisis in a democracy, one that puts the lives of citizens in danger, as with a war or an earthquake– or even more so in a pandemic, how should journalists behave? Should they perhaps “suspend” their role of “watchdog” that digs up the wrongdoings of the government for the good of democracy? Should they give up their duty to investigate and stop asking questions, especially those that call out the wrongdoings, and reveal the incompetence of those who govern the citizens?
These questions that may at times seem trivial, all of a sudden become worrisome when we notice how in countries that we hold dear to our hearts–the United States and Italy– freedom of the press and the function of the media in democracy are challenged by the behavior of those in government. Agitated and disturbed by the Coronavirus pandemic, and continuously searching for reassurance by the government, public opinion seems to be incited to become suspicious of journalists precisely by those that ought to be the focus of the press’ attention.
In Italy, in the past days, we witnessed an exceptionally grave episode, that in our opinion did not conclude with an adequate response on the part of Giuseppe Conte’s government. Russian authorities, who freely criticized a report by the daily newspaper, “La Stampa”, which placed the intervention of Moscow to help Italy in a bad light (the Kremlin had sent a small military medical contingent to northern Italy) circulated a statement that, to say the least, in its wording seemed to be more the kind of threat that a Mafia boss might send to those who “mess up”.
We’ve posted it here:
«Regarding the relationship with the real customers of La Stampa’s Russophobia, who are known to us, we recommend that they heed the ancient wisdom: Qui fodit foveam, incidet in eam (He that diggeth a pit, shall fall into it). To be clearer: A bad penny always comes back».
What was written by an officer of Russia’s Ministry of Defense about an Italian journalist received an absolutely inadequate response from Conte’s government. Palazzo Chigi (the Presidency of the Council of Ministers of the Italian Republic) did not issue a statement, but left that up to the Ministry of Defense and to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a message that praises almost in its entirety the Russian aid received – naturally appreciated, of course – and mentioning only at the end, in the very last lines, that “inopportune tone” regarding the damage done towards the freedom of the press in Italy. This was a response that seems to us to be the equivalent of a little slap on the wrist. As if to say, ‘don’t do it again, you little rascals, otherwise you’ll force us to call you brats’.
But does defending free press in a democracy matter so little to Conte’s government? Even when it’s intimidated on its own territory by a foreign government?
But let’s turn to what has been demoralizing us for weeks here, in the United States, once an ideal country for the freedom of the press, thanks to the First Amendment of the Constitution and which sadly, at this point in the international classifications that monitor the health of freedom of expression around the world, has slipped to a shameful 48th place!
It seems that those in power, and not only at the White House, have become allergic to questions raised by the press during the COVID-19 crisis, especially when it questions them about the late response and the errors they committed in facing the pandemic. Since this is a kind of “war”, it appears that certain types of embarrassing questions that lay open their failings and put under pressure those that will have to make future decisions, should not be asked. When instead, this is precisely the function of the free press: to insure that those in power carry out their responsibilities. It is only constant scrutiny that makes high performance possible, and only when the scrutiny of power is firm and constant.
President Donald Trump remains the “supreme commander” of anti-journalist propaganda: during his daily press conferences on the Coronavirus emergency, journalists are called “nasty”, “mean”, and propagators of “fake news”, especially when certain colleagues of ours dare to ask him for explanations about statements he made perhaps the day before, right when the person that made those statements asserts having said just the opposite, as if there was nothing to justify.
Unfortunately, it has been by now ascertained: COVID-19 is an extremely dangerous virus even for the health of democracy, and it has already claimed its first victim. In Hungary, a week ago, in a European Union country (!!!) the head of government, Victor Orban, obtained special powers similar to those that Prime Minister Mussolini did in 1924, and that has now been welcomed also by a certain Matteo Salvini (the sheer thought that the head of the Northern League could presently be at the Palazzo Chigi brings chills that would make the Coronavirus pale in comparison).
Finally, that the anti-journalist virus is spreading more quickly than COVID-19, can be also be noted by an episode that is anything but marginal for us: a member of the Italian Republic that we have often applauded and whom we hold in high regard for her dedication towards the problems that Italians abroad face, the Hon. Fucsia Nissoli, surprised us by attacking the journalist Alan Friedman in Formiche, for having dared to criticize President Trump during a TV show broadcast in Italy. The elected official to Parliament by Italian citizens in North America, stated in her article:
“How can we not be in agreement, therefore, with what President Berlusconi stated, that when we are at war – and this is a global war – we must always, and in any case, stand beside the commander-in-chief even and most of all, when he’s been elected by the citizens … something that certainly cannot be said about a commentator”.
Democracy, if Coronavirus has not killed you yet, please blink!
And yet, we expected that this catastrophic display of Trumpist disdain for competence, along with his arrogance, continually exhibited during this very dangerous pandemic and illustrated by his appointment of his daughter’s husband as the head the Coronavirus relief efforts, would have finally led people, even those who have been in hibernation till now, to see that “the emperor truly was naked.” Nothing, not even a mortal danger such as this pandemic, seems to be able to resuscitate the critical sense and survival of the Republicans.
And yet, in cases such as this one, “incompetence kills”, warned Congressman Adam Schiff of California only a few weeks ago.
This is how we have arrived at the paradox that those whose profession it is to shine a light on the ineptitude of those in power– and therefore on just how Trump has gone from being a farce to being a tragedy — are the very ones accused of being a “danger” that prevents fighting and “winning” against the Coronavirus. But the real danger for everyone’s lives is not raised by those that fulfill their obligation of informing citizens — an obligation that is guaranteed and protected by the Constitution — but by those that continue to accept that governing the most powerful democracy in history you can trample on facts, science, and therefore, the truth.
Translated by Emmelina De Feo
The Hon. Fucsia Fitzgerald Nissoli sent a reply to La Voce di New York that you can read here.