Press freedom organisation complains of intimidation of Perugia-based blogger

An organisation based in New York called the Committee to Protect Journalists has sent a letter today to the Italian President, Giorgio Napolitano, complaining about alleged police intimidation and brutality against the Perugia-based blogger Frank Sfarzo.

I’ve got admiration for Frank and I read his blog. I definitely find the allegations in the letter a cause for concern. However, I also think there are reasons to be slightly sceptical about the notion of him as Perugia’s answer to Nelson Mandela.

One of the very modern features of the Meredith Kercher case is the way the Internet has been used as a forum for discussion, debate and even DIY investigation. Frank has been at the forefront of this right through the process, and has become an outspoken critic of the police and those associated with the prosecution. At times, he’s seemed like a one-man Wikileaks. Just a few days ago, for example, he uploaded a video to YouTube of his own cross-examination of one of the trial witnesses, Nara Capezzali.

That the police in Perugia find Frank irritating is more than plausible, and so it would not be surprising if the allegations, contained in the letter, that they make this clear to him when he attends court are substantially true.

The more serious claims in the letter are that Frank was hit by police outside the court in October 2008, that police have routinely tried to prevent him from entering the court, seizing and examining his mobile phone, and that, in September last year, he suffered what is depicted as quite heavy-handed treatment by police at his flat. They turned up there, perhaps to conduct a search (the letter is not clear), there was some sort of altercation, and the police have charge Frank on the basis that it was him that attacked them.

Obviously, if Frank has been subjected to any form of police brutality or intimidation then that is deplorable. At the moment, it seems to be his word against theirs. For me, the bigger question is what justification the police might claim they had for examining Frank’s phone and visiting him at his flat, assuming they agree that these things happened, and how reasonable this justification seems.

The letter makes reference to Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi, authors of the book The Monster of Florence. They were indicted in 2006 by Giuliano Mignini, who is currently prosecuting the Kercher case. He accused them of conspiring to pervert the course of his investigation into a suicide. Spezi was convicted and went to prison, but was freed on appeal. Preston fled the country. (Preston seems fairly keen to get his own back on Mignini and, just by pure coincidence, he is a significant donor to the Committee to Protect Journalists).

There’s a fair bit of Internet he-said-she-said around all this, but the key question, I think, is whether Mignini had reasonable grounds for his indictment. If he did, all well and good. If he didn’t, then you have to wonder whether it was just a case of harassment.

The journalist Barbie Nadeau says in her book Angel Face that she has listened to a tape of a phone-tapped conversation between Preston and Spezi and that it does seem to her that they were talking about directing the police to faked evidence. I think that’s the key to the Preston-Spezi case.

In Frank’s case, I think the same applies. The whole thing turns on the question of why the police have treated him in the way that they have. But it’s a question that, for the time being, remains unexamined.

Note: There’s an update to this post here.

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19 Responses to Press freedom organisation complains of intimidation of Perugia-based blogger

  1. RoseMontague says:

    Interesting that you would mention Barbie Nadeau as she is in the news as well having a similar run-in with the Italian cops over her right to speak freely.

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2011-04-18/berlusconis-war-against-the-press/?cid=tag:all1#

  2. Reingold says:

    You forgot to mention that the police made up a bogus story about Frank injuring them. I mean, give me a break already. Enough with the bogus nuance.

  3. Reingold says:

    Come on Sherlock. You honestly think Frank Sfarzo put policemen in the hospital? Give me a break.

    • maundy says:

      No, of course I don’t think that. Who has claimed such a thing?

      The letter from the CPJ says that he has been charged with “injuring an officer”. What sort of injury is not specified. It also makes reference to officers getting injuries medically certified, but again doesn’t specify. If this is the case, then something must have injured them, and it sounds like Frank may have been with them the whole time. But there is no mention of an alternative hypothesis. Did they all mysteriously go to the toilet at some point, for example?

      It also has to be remembered that this is all only Frank’s side of things, and some might say he is not a stranger to the art of dramatising.

  4. Kurt Williams says:

    Several items here disturb me:
    Few journalists anywhere physically assault police, but a single journalist in Italy pushing around police is very hard to believe.
    Prosecutor Mignini’s behavior in the Florence murder trial, mentioned above, has resulted in his conviction of “abuse of office” of those who did not go along with his theories.
    Preston and Spezi both have solid reputations as authors. Barbie Nadeau’s accusation that these authors didn’t believe what they wrote and decided to mislead officers in a critical murder investigation is astounding. She should put fourth this recording or some information to back up such a claim.
    Frank Sfarzo may be right or wrong, but if he can be intimidated from writing on this case, we may only get one side of the story. I don’t know of any other Perugia native taking on this subject and standing against the version espoused by the local authorities. We all need for journalists to have this freedom.

    • maundy says:

      Hi Kurt.

      I think you may be making a similar mistake to Reingold above by reading things that are not there. The idea of Frank “pushing around police” seems like a straw man to me.

      I think the reputations of Preston and Spezi as authors is not the point. The question is whether they were harassed by Mignini or whether they were legitimately investigated. For me, the evidence says the latter, unless Barbie Nadeau is a liar, which I don’t believe is the case.

  5. Francesca Farce says:

    I’m just curious to know what CPJ standards are when it comes to defending journalists. When a reputable news source quotes an individual on the record, that individual is required to have a name and real world credentials. The blogger “Frank Sfarzo” uses an alias and has no credentials as a journalist that we know of or can verify. It is impossible to do a background check on “Frank Sfarzo”, for example to determine if he has a prior criminal record or to inquire as to the reason for his arrest last summer. In many ways, it is his word against the police’s, and the police don’t seem to be talking.

    We have seen no reputable primary source for “Frank Sfarzo’s” claim of police brutality and no indication that CPJ has done due diligence on the story before writing the letter.

    At this point, the first question to answer is this: Who is “Frank Sfarzo”?

    • maundy says:

      Well, I’d demur slightly, in case someone asks the question: who is Maundy Gregory?

      I would assume that CPJ will have required Frank to give his true identity and background details, though.

      I agree about the issue of whether CPJ has done due diligence. The letter reads like it is very much taking Frank’s story at face value. You would think that the first thing to do would be to contact the authorities in Perugia for comment, but I don’t get the impression this has been done.

      I think there’s also an issue about the extent to which CPJ is disinterested where an accusation relating to Giuliano Mignini is concerned, since one of their significant donors is one Douglas Preston.

      • James Richter says:

        “I would assume that CPJ will have required Frank to give his true identity and background ”

        Come on Maundy. It is in the journalists code of ethics that they use their own name. What of the many libels against real journalists that have been allowed to stand in Fran’ks comments area. Why does the CPJ not invetsigate them?

      • Francesca Farce says:

        But you, Maundy Gregory, are not a journalist. You are a blogger. And so is “Frank Sfarzo”. So why is CPJ taking his story at face value?
        It is standard practice in journalism to require sources quoted on the record to do so under their real name. “Frank Sfarzo” is presented in a letter written by an organization that purports to be connected in some way to ethical practices and yet violates a fundamental tenet of the profession, wittingly or unwittingly. Moreover, there is no way of verifying the story told by “Frank Sfarzo” because he does not use his real name.
        If you were to be interviewed by a journalist on the record, the journalist would have to give your real name if he or she wanted to attribute words to you, or provide a good reason for not doing so and, in addition, indicate that the name used is not the person’s real name.
        In one case already, “Frank Sfarzo” did not disclose to a journalist that he was using an alias; he told the same journalist he was a “film professor” in Perugia, which is false and was false at the time. If you want to, you can check it out: The Seattle Times, August 2008. The journalist: Jonathan Martin. I would tend not to believe someone if I knew they had misled a journalist, and I think this reflects badly on the journalist in this case, though his mistake was to take Sfarzo’s word for it.

      • Peggy Ganong says:

        “Frank Sfarzo’s” blog comments routinely carry slanderous comments about named, exposed journalists whose only crime is that they have tried to report objectively about the murder of Meredith Kercher, while “Frank Sfarzo” enjoys the relative safety shield of blogging under an alias.
        Recently, an anonymous commenter left a comment on “Frank Sfarzo’s” blog in which people in Peggy Ganong’s neighborhood (that is, my neighborhood) were urged to exercise their second amendment right with respect to me. I have a screen shot. It was not until another commenter asked “Frank Sfarzo” to remove the comment that he did so, several hours later.
        Is this the sort of responsible journalism that CPJ should be defending?

  6. Francesca Farce says:

    P.S. And yes, the fact that Doug Preston is a significant donor raises huge red flags, or ought to. It smells more than fishy. I smell a rat. Doug Preston has made some outlandish claims, stating for example on CNN that the Perugian investigators manufactured evidence in the Meredith Kercher murder case. And he is a founding member of the FOA (Friends Of Amanda) who he has a huge axe to grind with Mignini. Una farsa.

  7. RoseMontague says:

    In reply to James Richter. Using a pen name is a time honored tradition going back to Ben Franklin and my link to the Society of Professional Journalist’s code of ethics says nothing about having to use their real name. Maybe you are using a different code?

    Many bloggers do not use their real names for a variety of reasons. I tend to judge their posts on the content, regardless.

  8. Harry Rag says:

    Hi Rose,

    Frank Sfarzo is a Walter Mitty character who has been caught lying on a number of occasions. He told Julian Joyce from the BBC he was a journalist and he told Jonathan Martin from The Seattle Times he was a film professor.

    • Rosemontague says:

      I have heard that Frank was a film professor as well, and I do consider him to be a journalist/blogger and a fine writer. Anyone that collects information and reports on events can be considered a journalist, regardless of what media they use to impart that information. I also consider him to be on occasion a video journalist, which would fit with his film professor background.
      Any attempt by a government or governmental agency to stifle such reports is in my opinion censorship and attempt to limit the dissemination of information.

      Harry, regardless if Frank is right or wrong in his opinion on the case, it is wrong for him to be subject to harassment and intimidation.

      • Francesca Farce says:

        “Frank Sfarzo” told the journalist Jonathan Martin that he was a film professor in Perugia in August 2008, and it was not true. A journalist who provides false information for publication to another journalist has violated the ethics of their profession. As for his “video” work, there is no proof whatsoever that he was ever a photojournalist of any kind.

        Whether someone is a fine writer is ultimately a matter of opinion I suppose. But as his editor for a brief period, I can say that his writing in English had to be extensively corrected to be comprehensible. It certainly was not and is not what most people would call “fine” writing.

        No journalist should be harassed or intimidated in connection with legitimate work in journalism. But no journalist should lie to his colleagues either. Nor should he lie to his readers. “Frank Sfarzo” claimed in writing to have been a print journalist in the past, reporting on sports, theater and true crime. But this information was subseqeuntly erased from his blog. It was almost as if it was provided in an offhand way, to assert legitimacy. Why would a real journalist then erase information about his credentials? In this case, it can’t be because he did not want the authorities to know his identity. His physical identity was known already.
        This goes to the heart of his credibility. In this particular case, I have seen no unambiguous and verifiable indication that he was harassed or intimidated in connection with his attempts to report on this case any more than I have seen proof of his prior work in journalism or film studies. Accordingly, I would prefer to wait and see what emerges for public scrutiny before deciding. I have a hard time trusting anyone who says they enjoy telling “bullshits” to people.

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