Storm over ethics of press leaks

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The Independent Online
HAS the Italian press committed murder? Or was it the judiciary? Or both?

The suicide last week of a leading anti-Mafia public prosecutor, Domenico Signorino, after a newspaper report that he was an accomplice of the Mafia, has stirred consciences and controversy.

The allegation was made by Gaspare Mutolo, the former driver and aide of the top Mafia boss Salvatore Riina, who has become one of the three most important pentiti, or supergrasses, revealing the innermost workings of the 'honoured society'.

Mutolo reportedly told investigators that three or four magistrates and some police officers had been involved with the Mafia. The only name to emerge, however, was that of Signorino, who allegedly was sold an apartment cheaply by a Palermo Mafia boss and may in return have 'softened up' the prosecution's case in a trial of several leading Mafia figures.

At this point Signorino should by law have been quietly sent formal notification that he was under suspicion so that he could prepare his defence. Instead the allegations were passed on by a source among the investigating magistrates to a newspaper, which published them.

Signorino first reacted by defending himself confidently and even joking 'you should be careful about shaking my hand. I might be a mafioso'. But three days later he unexpectedly returned home from work at 11am, took his gun and shot himself.

'A press murder,' charged one of Signorino's friends. The search for sensation 'has claimed its victim,' charged the Justice Minister, Claudio Martelli. 'We have this death on our consciences,' declared Alberto La Volpe, head of TV Channel Two news. 'He was killed by the process of information'.

'A vile accusation,' retorted l'Unita, the newspaper which carried the first report, pointing out that it also carried Signorino's denial. But others put the blame on the justice sources who leaked the information to l'Unita.

All appear agreed, however, on the need for restraint in a situation which was already getting out of hand, and the government is preparing to tighten the rules. Signorino was one of three Sicilians to have committed suicide - the others were a lawyer and an industrialist - after allegations of links with the Mafia, while at least three more people killed themselves over charges of political corruption in Milan. None of them had yet been tried.

'In no other country in the world have there been so many suicides linked to judicial affairs,' complained a Socialist MP, Ugo Intini. 'The truth is that before they ever come to the court trials are held by means of lynching in public and the mass media.'

Non-Italians are astonished by the manner in which suspicions and allegations are leaked without inhibition to the media during investigations into hot issues of the moment. A notification of suspicion, which does not even amount to a formal charge, is often treated in practice as if it were a verdict.

In this atmosphere, innocent people can be, and have been, unjustly accused and assumed to be guilty before ever setting foot in a court.

On the other hand, journalists point out that investigations and trials take years in Italy and if they were barred from publishing evidence as it emerged, information of public importance would be hidden for too long.