My Ordeal Reporting Sexism Truth

Italian police came for an American journalist when she wrote about the prime minister's "girl problem" and the country's sexist TV. Barbie Latza Nadeau recounts her ordeal.

04.18.11 6:08 AM ET

Last year, I wrote a Newsweek cover story titled " Berlusconi's Girl Problem" that opened with a scene from Striscia la Notizia, a satire news program on a Berlusconi-owned channel. In the scene I described, a woman in a bathing suit fondled a string of garlic as the hosts ogled her. It was one of many examples of the blatant vulgarity that dominates Italian television, where women are treated as voiceless, sequined, half-nude decoration.

Not long after, Striscia—and the Italian authorities—turned their attention to me. At first I was flattered. Striscia can be smart and funny, think a soft porn version of The Daily Show but with two ever-present, scantily clad women sprawled on desks or jumping around in hot pants.

After the publication of the Newsweek story about how sexist Italian television can be, they set their sights on us. Episode after episode, Striscia's male hosts took digs at Newsweek and me personally; fair game—I took a dig at them first.

Then one afternoon, just weeks before I was to speak about Italy at the Women in the World conference hosted by Newsweek and The Daily Beast in New York, a police officer came to my apartment while I was making dinner. My sons, age 11 and 9, were intrigued when the officer told me to come down to the station. But how could I explain the situation to them without explaining Striscia's R-rated content? Turned out, I was under investigation for criminal defamation of Striscia's producer and creator, and that I could face three years in jail.

Three years in jail? For pointing out Italian television's blatant sexism and Berlusconi's "girl problem"?

"It's a threat," one police officer told me. "It's a form of intimidation."

Whatever it was, it worked. At the conference in New York, I was reluctant to mention Striscia or really talk about the issue; nervous that, because our panel was live-streamed, anything I said could be held against me. That certainly was the case for another panelist Emma Bonino, vice president of Italian parliament and Italy's best-known feminist. She was lambasted in Italy for comments she made at the conference.

It seemed like intimidation. And in any other Western democracy, this would be an outrage. In Italy, it's just how things work.

Most journalists assume the government taps their phones. And at least a dozen of my colleagues—especially Italian journalists—have received notices of criminal defamation after writing stories that hit a nerve. Even worse, an American colleague was recently visited by tax authorities after writing a corruption story, and an Iranian colleague was accused of being a spy. Journalists working in Italy all speak in a kind of code on the phone; when you need to discuss something serious, you do it in person.

“It’s a threat,” one police officer told me. “It’s a form of intimidation.”

In 2009, I wrote a piece for Newsweek about Berlusconi's move to "shut up" the press with a "kill the messenger" slant. Not long after, Freedom House ranked Italy 74th in the world for press freedom and knocked Italy down from the category of "free" press to "partially free," joining the rank of countries such as the Congo and Colombia. Umberto Eco wrote a sad commentary on what Italy's loss of press freedom meant: "When someone has to take a stand in defense of freedom of press, it means that society… is already ailing," he wrote. "In democracies that we would define as 'strong,' there's no need to defend freedom of press because no one would even dream of limiting it."

Not so in Italy. Last year, Berlusconi promised to "shut up" some members of the Italian press and Reporters Without Borders ranks Italy the lowest for press freedom in Western Europe. Muckraker Roberto Saviano summed it up perfectly last week when he spoke at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia. "Will you be criticized, if you oppose the government?" he quipped. "Not at all. You'll be delegitimized."

Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek Magazine since 1997 and for The Daily Beast since 2009. She is a frequent contributor to CNN Traveller, Departures, Discovery and Grazia. She appears regularly on CNN, BBC and NPR.