Do Italian Media Really Counter Racist Hate Speech?

Published: 25 July 2013

Country: Italy

by Giulia Dessi

kyengeIn a long series of racist slurs against Cecile Kyenge, the first black minister in Italy, the latest one comes from the Senate’s deputy speaker.

Roberto Calderoli, who is also a member of the anti-immigration Northern League, said the minister of Integration reminded him an orang-utan, then adding that she “should be a minister in her own country.” At the Northern League festival where he said those comments, not one of the 1.500 militants present batted an eyelid, but as the news spread, a strong condemnation from media, left-wing party leaders, and social media forced him to apologise.

Though the senator claimed to be surprised for what he considered an “unfortunate joke”, this was not the first time one of Northern League’s members embroiled in a race row against immigrants as well as the minister.

Ms Kyenge is an eye doctor who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She moved to Italy 30 years ago, later taking Italian citizenship. Her appointment as a cabinet minister in April unlashed the fury of a small number of xenophobic people who have regularly addressed her racist insults, including death threats. Other than her non-Italian origins, right-wing extremists strongly disapprove her promise to reform Italy’s citizenship laws.

In June, a local councillor from the Northern League was expelled from the party and indicted for instigating racist sex crimes. She called for the minister to be raped so that she will understand the victims of that crime. The month before, Mario Borghezio, MEP for the Northern League, was suspended from the European Parliament by the UKIP for his racist slanders. He said that Ms Kyenge would be more suited to being a “housekeeper” than a minister and claimed that she would impose “tribal traditions” from the Congo on Italy.

Commenting the long series of insults, Ms Kyenge refused to label Italy as racist and said: “Some people find it hard to accept that Italy has changed. And I believe that there is a need for other messages and another kind of communication for precisely that reason.

Media have a paramount role in confronting extremism and combating discrimination, but Italian media have barely helped develop the kind of communication Ms Kyenge has pleaded for.

Through its sarcastic and derogatory language, the daily La Padania, official voice of the Northern League party, alarmingly contributes in inciting hate against the minister and creating barriers and misunderstandings between different communities. On its online platform, there is no trace of the racial slanders against the cabinet minister. Instead, a few days later, Mr Calderoli’s official apologies were quoted in full. In addition, La Padania‘s reporters referred to a plot by left-wing party leaders and papers that, according to the paper, focused on Ms Kyenge’s case to distract attention from the more serious problems the current government was facing.

The main newspapers, La Repubblica, Il Corriere della Sera, and Il Fatto Quotidiano, strongly denounced the offensive remarks by the senator and columnists repeatedly urged him to resign. Left-wing newspaper L’Unita also set up a petition calling for its readership’s response.

Despite the resolute condemnation of the senator’s rants and a growing racist culture, too much visibility is given to hate speech. For days big headlines repeated the racist insult with the aim to catch the reader’s attention, but with the result of sensationalising and echoing those offences that a portion of possible right-wing extremist voters might like and agree with.

When the racist tirades come from minor public figures, Italian media report the hard facts, both to shock and entertain, but a wider context is rarely provided. For example, when the Northern League secretary Matteo Salvini said “The illegal immigrants that the black minister wants to give residence permit to, pickaxe and kill people” papers merely reported his words and a few reactions. Disregarding the context, journalists failed to reveal the flaws in his reasoning, thus leaving less-informed readers to accept his argument as valid.

Although the strong media reaction is certainly encouraging, the way to report on hate speech entails a more subtle professional skill than just writing editorials in support of the victims. To draw a line between the right to free expression and the right to equality requires clear ethical values that Italian media often seem to overlook.