Rossella Puccio

Rossella Puccio

Since the beginning of the year, the European consortium Media Freedom Rapid Response has recorded 34 cases of violation of press freedom in Italy, including assaults, verbal attacks, and strategic lawsuits. We talked about it with Rossella Puccio, an independent journalist who was the victim of attacks and intimidation

09/06/2023 -  Serena Epis

Rossella Puccio is a freelance journalist who lives in Palermo. In addition to covering local and regional news, she does investigative journalism and photojournalism with reports, investigative reports, and documentaries. She has collaborated with various national and regional newspapers, including La Repubblica, Giornale di Sicilia, Corriere del Mezzogiorno, and Palermo Today.

She manages the personal blog Todoscomodo , where she writes about social issues, human rights, the condition of women, and poverty among other issues. For some years she has also been engaged in social planning in the field of restorative justice and urban regeneration in neighbourhoods at risk.

On the night of last April 3, Rossella Puccio's family car was set on fire in the Sferracavallo district of Palermo, an attack that appears to be a clear act of intimidation linked to her work as a journalist.

Last April, however, was not the first act of intimidation that you have suffered…

April's is only the latest in a series of episodes of violence that I have suffered. 13 years ago they cut off all 4 wheels of my car and made me find a knife stuck in the hood. In 2020 I was attacked, kicked and punched, equipment broken... all under the eyes of several people who stopped and watched without anyone intervening. This is perhaps one of the worst and most difficult truths to overcome. At one point I was even advised to drop some investigations and get away from the city for a while.

What are the issues you cover and which can be in some way sensitive?

Throughout my career, I have mainly dealt with social issues, human rights, and scientific counter-information, including the housing emergency, the rights of migrants, poverty, and the condition of women and minors [in 2013 she received the Amnesty International Human Rights Defenders Award, ed]. My training is part investigative journalism, part documentary and photojournalism. In recent years, especially after the acts of violence of which I have been a victim, I have devoted myself to social planning by making my journalistic experience available to projects related to restorative justice, non-violence, and urban and social regeneration in neighbourhoods at risk.

For example, I have recently worked with people in alternative prison terms. This work has allowed me to understand that these people often grew up in a context of violence in which it was not possible to choose between good and evil and that they are therefore, in a certain sense, victims themselves. Getting in touch with these people, with their painful humanity, helped me understand and somehow work to heal my wound, to build something good starting from it. I cannot justify those who hurt me, but I can try to broaden the perspective in an attempt to understand the deeper reasons that often lie behind acts of violence, even when they are so incomprehensible.

How are attacks like last April's affecting your work and private life?

When we talk about defending freedom of the press and the right to report, we often do not think about the implications with respect to the journalist's life. When you receive slaps – not only physical, but also psychological and emotional – these have a profound impact on the person, on the words, on the way of reporting. I have always taken my profession very seriously, as an act of responsibility towards others, but you need to have great strength not to be influenced by episodes like this. Exercising your right to criticise and report in a safe space is one thing, but when your car is set on fire, the wheels are flat, and your family risks being endangered, then there are moments when you stop and wonder what else could happen.

I am a freelance journalist and when you are a freelancer you carry all the load yourself: I had to buy the equipment back myself, I suffered severe post-traumatic stress that I could not adequately deal with because therapy is really expensive. There is always a shower of solidarity when something happens, but then we are often left alone.

What motivates you to keep going in such a difficult context?

It is a matter of responsibility. When faced with an injustice or a particularly alarming situation, I cannot turn away. I have always been like this, I started denouncing mafia acts even before becoming a journalist. I often get the question "but why do you do it?".

I tend not to be afraid, because I think the truth is revolutionary. I take responsibility for my choices, of course, as long as it is only about me it is one thing, but when it is also about my family then it is quite another.

What impact did this episode have locally?

The community has shown me closeness and solidarity. Thanks to the sensitivity of a councilwoman, my case reached the city council, which undertook to strengthen the security of the neighbourhood where the arson attack took place. Currently, however, none of the planned provisions, including the enhancement of lighting and the installation of security cameras, has been implemented.

Also some citizens have shown me closeness in a more concrete way, for example by starting a fundraiser , which helped me cover the costs of the damages suffered which otherwise I would have to face alone, because in Italy there are no funds which a reporter can access in cases like this.

What kind of support have you received from the journalistic community?

I must say that I also received solidarity and support from the press , the Order of Journalists , Assostampa Sicilia, and the FNSI who attempted to bring a civil action in the second hearing in May, but unfortunately the request was rejected. The professional and moral support was fundamental right from the start of the NGO Ossigeno per l'Informazione, which filed a civil action [in January 2023 the trial relating to the attacks suffered by Rossella Puccio in 2020 began; the last hearing was held on 19 May, ed].

More can always be done, words and gestures of solidarity are beautiful, but they are not enough. One useful thing – which I have proposed to both the Order of Journalists and the National Federation of the Italian Press – would be to set up a planning body to access European funds for the protection of press freedom. Having more resources available would be useful to be able to offer more help to journalists who are victims of attacks or intimidation; I also suggested starting a psychological support desk.

I would like to emphasise that, without adequate support for journalists, not only do we risk harming freedom of the press and the right to report, but also the right of citizens to be informed: if there are no adequate safeguards, the risk of self-censorship by journalists is strong, because no one will feel safe covering certain topics or denouncing certain facts.

What do episodes like these tell us about the general condition in which journalists work in our country?

The data relating to journalism in Italy are alarming  and it is no coincidence that we are talking about a "war on journalism".

Attacks on journalists are much more frequent than it seems because unfortunately the ratio between episodes of violence and reports is very low. The official data from the Observatory of the Ministry of the Interior only take into consideration the episodes provided by the police, but these figures are not true and the numbers are much higher.

Talking to several colleagues, I realised that many do not report because they are afraid. In territories such as the city of Palermo, one has to deal with multiple offenders or with more or less direct affiliations with a polluted social fabric.

In some cases, complaints are not filed because the trials are too long or because cases are often archived. I have sometimes thought "I won't report it because it's useless anyway" myself.

Are there inherent difficulties in working as a freelance journalist?

Journalism in Italy is now generally precarious, publishers pay less and less and many oppose the adjustment of contracts, there have been many layoffs, salaries are very low, and fair compensation is a dream, despite the commitment of associations such as Assostampa and FNSI.

As a freelancer everything is more difficult, pitching investigations is expensive and also dangerous: a well-done investigation takes a very long time with the risk that if they report you, it is the end. In the past it happened that I could not find a publisher for stories that were important to me and I published them independently.

Some of these, for example the documentary Otto senza un Tetto  (Eight without a roof) on the housing emergency or the latest reportage Order of Journalists. Order of terrorists  on the attack on my colleague Raffaella Maria Cosentino. But you cannot always risk it. Sometimes you have to give up telling some stories and those who pay the consequences are also the citizens and the right to report.

Media Freedom Rapid Response

The partners of the MFRR consortium reported  the arson attack and asked the police and local judicial authorities to immediately start the investigation. The consortium also offered Rossella Puccio financial support to be able to start therapy and deal with the post-traumatic stress she suffered following the 2020 attack.

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