Before it jumped into the 19-day disappearance of Seattle journalist Dorothy Parvaz, the Committee to Protect Journalists was working to defend freedom of the press in another Seattle-related matter halfway around the world. That's the Amanda Knox case.
In an April 19 letter to the president of Italy, the Committtee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) outlined in great detail its concerns about the harassment of reporters who dare to question the actions of police and prosecutors involved with Knox's legal case. The West Seattle woman was convicted of murdering her roommate in Italy, Meredith Kercher, and the case is under appeal. The committee, in its efforts on behalf of reporters covering the case, has singled out the activities of Perugia Public Prosecutor Giuliano Mignini. The letter to President Giorgio Napolitano says:
CPJ is particularly troubled by the manifest intolerance to criticism displayed by Perugia Public Prosecutor Giuliano Mignini, who has filed or threatened to file criminal lawsuits against individual reporters, writers, and press outlets, both in Italy and the United States, in connection with the Kercher murder investigation as well as the investigation into the Monster of Florence serial killings.
Mignini has exhibited an amazingly broad reach in trying to intimidate critics. In 2009, for instance, he was going after The West Seattle Herald demanding removal of an article on a website that contained criticisms of him. And he's not alone in exercising officials' frightening powers under Italian law to go after critics. Knox's parents have been ordered to stand trial for slandering police over their daughter's treatment — and the date for the case that most democratic nations would see as involving constraint of free speech was, with no apparent sense of irony, set for July 4. (A separate trial pursuing slander charges against Amanda Knox is set for later in the year.)
CPJ points to the vulnerability of bloggers in Italy to the heavy hand of the prosecutor. CPJ Executive Director John Simon singled out the freedom of press issues and the treatment of one blogger in particular at the hands of a Perugia police unit, Squadra Mobile, supervised by Mignini:
As the appeal of the defendants — U.S. student Amanda Knox and Italian student Raffaele Sollecito — continues at the appellate court of Perugia (Corte di Assise di Appello di Perugia), we call on you to ensure that journalists, writers, and bloggers are able to report and comment on the proceedings freely and without fear of reprisal.
Of the cases that have come to CPJ's attention, one stands out because of the abusive actions employed by members of Squadra Mobile to punish a critic of the official Kercher murder inquiry. Local freelance reporter Frank Sfarzo created his English-language blog Perugia Shock in 2007, days after Kercher's gruesome murder. Based in Perugia, Sfarzo became interested in the case from the start, posting reporting and comments on it on his blog. Sfarzo regularly criticized what he considered flaws in the Kercher investigation, at times using harsh language to express his views.
Sfarzo told CPJ his troubles started on October 28, 2008, the day Knox and Sollecito were indicted and a third defendant was convicted of murdering Kercher. Several members of Squadra Mobile, Sfarzo told CPJ, approached him just outside the city court (Corte di Assise di Perugia) and started to push and hit him. "You are pissing us off!" — they told him, referring to his coverage.
It has gone on from there. Google recently pulled service for Sfarzo's blog, which The Washington Post described as the only English language blog produced in Italy that covered Knox and Sollecito's original trial. (As The Post points out, the blog archive can still be found here.)
The underlying issue for the bloggers and reporters who have earned Mignini's cold fury is, if anything, even more essential than freedom of the press. It is justice.
For following all the aspects of the case, including the free speech questions, there is a very smart local source: Author and Seattlepi.com blogger Candace Dempsey has followed the story for years.