Artur Oberhofer and Christoph Franceschini ©

Artur Oberhofer and Christoph Franceschini ©

The acquittal of the authors of an investigative book on discontent within the majority party comes in a local context where the rule of law is severely tested by the interweaving of media concentration, economic interests, politics and business, family ties, and various anomalies

22/05/2023 -  Paola Rosà

“Let's say it's good ground for a contrarian”. Christoph Franceschini, investigative journalist and author with Artur Oberhofer of the book Freunde im Edelweiss (in German "friends in the edelweiss”, where the flower is the symbol of the majority party), never loses his irony and constructive approach, not even when talking about South Tyrol and the ties between politics, the media, and the business world. The investigative book, released in March 2022, was soon hit by a penal decree for the unauthorised publication of wiretaps.

Yet, the contrarian prevailed this time too, and a sentence  made known on May 5 overturned the first conviction: full acquittal, "because the fact does not exist", which preserves the public knowledge of the phone calls between members of the SVP (Südtiroler Volkspartei, South Tyrolean people's party) that the prosecutor had registered in 2018 as part of an investigation into an almost billion-dollar contract for local public transport.

More attentive citizens

“Part of the investigation has been closed – explains lawyer Nicola Canestrini, who defended the two together with Burkard Zozin – and the materials published in March 2022 accompanying the book come from that file, so it was clear that they could be disclosed; if anything, the law forbids publishing wiretaps of trials in progress”. That part of the material was also in the file of the investigation in progress is in any case an anomaly for which the authors of the book certainly do not have to answer.

"Victory is a victory for everyone", observes Franceschini who, in the motivation for the "political personality of 2022 " award conferred to him last month by Politika, the political science society of South Tyrol, is praised for his "curiosity, enthusiasm, and tough skin”. A skin that in many years of investigative journalism, in many years as a "contrarian", has certainly hardened without, however, bringing Franceschini to despair.

“I remain optimistic otherwise I wouldn't do this job – he notes – also because I see an enormous sensitivity to these issues growing: twenty years ago whoever kept an eye on the South Tyrolean monopoly, which is not only media but has roots in the economic world and institutions, was labelled a lunatic. Now, however, everyone understands that something is not right, and that it is a danger to democracy”.

The South Tyrolean "model"

Since 2013 at, with which, among other things, he has to defend himself against a claim for damages for 150,000 Euros by giant company Athesia, Christoph Franceschini has been an attentive observer of the South Tyrolean "model", which according to him has been exported to neighbouring province of Trento. “Of course, even in Trento the mentality of the mountain dwellers prevails, which leads you to stay calm and not react immediately. But sooner or later the risks of this media concentration will emerge, as Athesia is the owner of the two major newspapers in South Tyrol and the two major newspapers in Trentino, as well as Radio Dolomiti; but there are also other anomalies, such as the fact that the president of the chamber of commerce sits on the board of directors of S.I.E. Società Iniziative Editoriali, the entity that publishes L'Adige and New Trentino and belongs to the Athesia Group".

The scheme would follow that of South Tyrol, where Michl Ebner, patron of Athesia, was reconfirmed for the fourth time as president of the Bolzano chamber of commerce, a position he has held since 2008.

In South Tyrol, therefore, the rule of law needs to be monitored, both in terms of media freedom and for the functioning of the juridical machine, so investigative journalism certainly does not lack work. "But that is never missing anywhere", smiles Franceschini, who immediately sensed the storm that would be unleashed by the publication of those wiretaps. "I received them in an anonymous envelope, perhaps by a whistleblower, perhaps a party member, who knows; and a message said that they had also been sent to Artur Oberhofer, my colleague when I worked at the Neue Südtiroler Tageszeitung . The next day we talked and we decided to work on it seriously. It took a year".

A selection process

Discarding the wiretaps that had no public or political relevance, the two authors selected for publication the conversations that revealed the internal conflicts of the majority party, and the impact on reality was clear: among other things, the president of the Province withdrew the powers of commissioner Widmann , who spoke of him in not flattering terms in the phone calls. "Even before publication, we had somehow been warned of the risks we would run – remembers Franceschini – so much so that the Dolomiten , Athesia's newspaper in German, came out with an interview with an academic from Padua who claimed that we deserved three years in prison".

Warnings, veiled threats, investigations into alleged piloted tenders, pressures, and even family plots: South Tyrol emerges in a very different light from that of the stereotypes cultivated for tourism purposes. And this light illuminates several crucial aspects of the rule of law, from the judicial system to the anti-corruption framework, from media pluralism to other institutional issues related to the balance of powers system.

"Here we were about to silence a public debate on issues of public interest", observes lawyer Nicola Canestrini. The victory in this case was clear, a judge upheld the opposition to the criminal decree and acquitted the authors of the book in full, "because the fact does not exist".

Good news for everyone

“But the risk of silencing everything was very strong – explains Canestrini – as the possibility of oblation was given, or rather of closing the matter with a reduced sanction, leaving the criminal record clean. Anyone would have accepted. Instead, thanks to the courage of those who take risks on their own skin, this time freedom of the press has won".

Franceschini also confirms that the possibility of closing the issue by paying only 150 Euros was a strong temptation. On the other hand, there seemed to be no reason why the wiretaps could not be disclosed.

“There is no evidence as to why the public prosecutor's office opened the first proceeding – comments Canestrini – from the documents it appears that it was a judicial police officer who made the first report of the news of the crime. But the documents were incomplete, even the page with the date of publication of the book was missing".

The sentencing was then decidedly fast, and this for Canestrini is one of the many "singularities" of this case. Another singularity is the fact that the prosecution also knew that part of the interceptions, as they belonged to an archived file, could be disseminated. Then one of the judges, who abstained from the judgment because he was a relative of one of the people intercepted, somehow violated the presumption of innocence by declaring that the authors of the book had caused serious damage to his (the judge's) family members: "But how could this be a fair trial?”.

However, the opposition to the conviction was upheld, and the wiretaps can remain in the public domain. There are some pending appeals to the privacy guarantor, but the lawyer and his clients are serene, because the victory of press freedom is everyone's victory.

“As always, civil rights are strengthened if someone takes the risk and gets involved to reaffirm them”, concludes Canestrini.

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