Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right interior minister, has threatened to remove the police protection of one of the country’s most famous writers, Roberto Saviano, who has been under threat from organised crime since his breakthrough success about the mafia, Gomorrah, was published in 2006.
Saviano is one of Salvini’s toughest critics and is a constant fixture on Italian media. He is one of hundreds of journalists and writers who are under constant guard in Italy, because of current or previous threats to their safety by the mafia.
Speaking in an interview on Rai Tre on Thursday morning, Salvini suggested it was time to review spending on Saviano’s police escort as part of an evaluation of how “Italians spend their money”. He pointed to the fact that Saviano spends time abroad, and that the seriousness of the threat against him had to be considered.
“Roberto Saviano is the last of my problems. I’ll send him a kiss if he is watching now. He is a person who provokes so much tenderness and affection, but it is right to evaluate how Italians spend their money,” Salvini said.
Earlier this week Saviano wrote a piece for the Guardian in which he said Italy’s war on migrants had made him fear for the future of his country.
Saviano’s supporters and some leading politicians immediately criticised Salvini’s comments, saying the statement was an abuse of Salvini’s power as interior minister and threatened the country’s democratic values.
Writing for the Guardian, Saviano thanked supporters for showing solidarity, but said the fight was not really about him: he was only being used as an instrument for Salvini to “destroy the rule of law”.
“It would be easy for me today to come to the fight, but I do not want to do it. Neither do I want to turn the other cheek, I am not Christ, I am not a sacrificial lamb, I am not seeking martyrdom: forget it!,” he wrote. “But I’m not afraid of Salvini either ... he is a buffoon.”
But, as with Salvini’s attack on the Roma community this week, when he called for the mass expulsion of all non-Italian Roma, some of the populist government’s supporters are likely to welcome his targeting of Saviano.
Salvini’s sardonic remarks – about Saviano provoking feelings of affection – reflected the mixed feelings Italians have about the author, who is also a regular contributor to the Guardian.
Saviano was heaped with praise early in his career as a writer who exposed the inner workings of the Camorra, and the fact that he required police protection – he has described his life under armed guard as “shit” – added to his mystique as a man who was willing to risk his life to fight organised crime. His hit has been followed up by a successful film, television series, and other books taking on corruption and the global drug trade.
In Italy, however, his frequent commentary on television and newspaper columns, and his frequent criticism of Italian society and political corruption, has also annoyed some. In taking on Saviano, Salvini seems to be siding with those Italians who think the writer has been too critical.
Salvini’s threat to remove Saviano’s protection may be seen as going too far, however. It also reinforces the breadth of Salvini’s power as interior minister. The head of the League party – or the Lega as it is known in Italy – has focused his attention on migration and the Roma community, but he also has control of Italy’s domestic security, as well as insight into police investigations and domestic surveillance.
Graziano Delrio, a centre-left politician with the Democratic party (PD), said he would be willing to sacrifice his own police escort, but that Salvini ought to leave Saviano alone, according to La Repubblica. Marco Minniti, the former interior minister, told the Italian newspaper that there were strict and transparent procedures in place dictating police protection and for whom it was offered.
Such decisions, the newspaper noted, were not dependent on a politician’s personal views of the subject of protection.
Ettore Rosato, another PD lawmaker, said Salvini’s remarks represented an “unacceptable threat” to a man who had shed light on the country’s dangerous criminal networks.
“Saviano’s escort is not a gift but the protection that the state must guarantee to those who are threatened for fighting the mafia and the Camorra,” Rosato told La Repubblica.