#EndImpunity: The investigation that killed my brother Giovanni

by Alberto Spampinato

Alberto Spampinato is the founder of Ossigeno per l’informazione (oxygen through information), a Rome-based observatory that monitors violations of press and media freedom in Italy. Ossigeno is a partner organisation of the EPMF. This is the story of his journalist brother who was murdered on this day 45 years ago.

Giovanni Spampinato The Italian journalist Giovanni Spampinato

When he was murdered, forty-five years ago, my brother Giovanni was 25 years old. For three years he had been a reporter for the daily evening newspaper L’Ora di Palermo. He was the special correspondent from Ragusa, a quiet town located in the far South East side of Sicily. That newspaper ceased to exist more than 25 years ago. But its story is recorded in history as an example of investigative journalism.

In October 1958, L’Ora published the first true, objective and detailed journalistic inquiry into the Sicilian Mafia. The newspaper displayed on the front page photographs of the Mafia bosses with the title "Wanted". The article explained the actual hierarchy of the organised crime mob and its network of political protection. No newspaper had ever done this before. No newspaper did it ever again after that. 

L’Ora published the faces and names of the bloodthirsty bosses who were currently running criminal businesses in Italy. In this way the Sicilian newspaper openly challenged the Mafia on the very territory where it had its roots. It was a challenge because, to survive, the Mafia always imposes a silence on its activities and it imposes this silence through terror.

The Mafia reacted to that journalistic investigation by bombing the printworks to stop the printing of the newspaper. Then it threatened the team of investigative journalists. But the printing went ahead and the editor replied with this headline: “We are not afraid. Our investigation continues“. In the following years, the newspaper faced many other threats and a lot of specious trials but it was able to prevail each time in front of the courts. 

Three journalists were killed

Three journalists from L'Ora were assassinated: the first in 1960, the second one in 1970 and the third in 1972. My brother Giovanni was the third.

He was 25 years old when, on October 27, he was barbarously killed, in Sicily - hit by six gunshot bullets fired at close range. The killer was a man sitting beside him in my brother’s small car. It was late evening. Outside it was raining. My brother was driving the car. That man had asked to meet Giovanni in order to give him confidential information about who was responsible for a mysterious murder which had occurred six months earlier in the same town.

Giovanni Spampinato The headlines - "murdered because he was looking for the truth"

That man was suspected to be involved in some way in that killing, as he was the last person to meet the victim who had been a close friend. My brother was the only journalist who had revealed that he was under suspicion. Before continuing, I want to say that it’s very difficult to explain why the murder of my brother is linked to Mafia. It was difficult also for me to understand what really happened.

Everybody tried to tell this story as an episode of imprudence by a kid who was playing at being a reporter as if it were a game and made big mistakes because of his inexperience. Local reporters even now still say openly that my brother would have done better to close his eyes and keep under wraps the news that he had learned, as they wisely did. Some of them boasted to me that they gave this advice to my brother.

"Don't do it" 

"Don’t do it, it does not suit you," they told him. My brother did not listen to what they were saying. He refused self-censorship. He was a journalist. I can say it today with the utmost confidence because, after the death of my brother, in order to understand these matters I myself became a journalist and worked for 40 years as a reporter. With this professional experience, a few years ago I reconstructed my brother's life and death and told his true story in a book.

That reconstruction gave him the professional reward he had deserved for many years.

What’s more, it has made it clear to me and to many others that behind the threats to journalists there is always a recurring dynamic. We need to understand that if we want to give reporters the necessary and effective protection they need to do their work. From the analysis of my brother's death and in his memory, the Observatory Ossigeno per l’Informazione was born, which I will discuss later.

Information of public interest


Giovanni Spampiato Giovanni Spampiato

In his last two years Giovanni made a special inquiry in the field. His exclusive journalistic research reported in the newspaper revealed that in the South East corner of Sicily some extreme right-wing groups secretly carried out paramilitary training for their followers. These groups had weapons and explosives and were linked with people suspected of the 1969 terrorist attacks in Rome and Milan. And they were linked to the Fascist regime of colonels, who at the time were in power in Greece.

While he was publishing this investigation in instalments he and his newspaper were threatened. In Ragusa, this quiet town where he lived, something happened that was absolutely out of the ordinary. A well-known man, an engineer, was murdered in a way that specialists immediately defined as that of the Mafia. After a while, some people who were linked to the extremist group that my brother had uncovered in his inquiry were involved in the investigation for this murder.

It was a well-known fact, it was information of public interest, but only Giovanni had reported about these people with an article in the newspaper. Everyone was afraid to write that news. Why? I think it was because the suspect was the son of the chief magistrate of the city, the president of the court.

The suspect had reacted with a lawsuit for defamation but after a month he had withdrawn the accusation because what my brother had written was true and had been correctly reported. My brother had written three more articles, highlighting the unclear aspects of the judicial inquiry into the murder and in the last article he interviewed the suspect, reported his reasons and his alibi. Yet that man was not satisfied. He wanted an impossible thing: that my brother would write in an article that he was innocent. He wanted it to be reported as though there was a war, a conspiracy being waged against him and his father, the magistrate. He had already asked for other meetings with the journalist promising to show him documents to prove what he was saying. That evening they had met for that very reason.

We do not know exactly what happened because there are no witnesses. We know the suspect chose a special place to commit the murder: the entrance to the prison. He fired two guns. Then he got out of the car, crossed the street, knocked on the door of the jail and handed himself over to the officers saying, "I killed a man, he was persecuting me”….

November 2nd is the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists – click here to learn more about this day or with on twitter #EndImpunity