An NPR Icon Bids Farewell After 40 Years of Reporting From Italy

As a veteran correspondent for National Public Radio, Sylvia Poggioli spent the bulk of her 41-year career at the American broadcaster living and reporting in Italy.  

Now, as she moves into retirement, the Rhode Island-born journalist is watching with interest at how the change in Italy’s government is affecting the media and some of the key issues she has covered there over the years, including immigration.  

Last October, Giorgia Meloni — head of Fratelli d’Italia, or the Brothers of Italy party — became prime minister of Italy, the country’s first far-right leader since the end of World War II. 

Under her administration, the government has blocked humanitarian ships that rescue migrants from docking at Italian ports and ordered the Milan City Council to stop recognizing same sex partners on birth registers. 

Globally, Italy is not often top of mind for press freedom advocates, but a rise in lawsuits, changes at the state broadcaster and a decline in government press briefings are raising concerns.

“There are a lot of frustrating things here. It’s not all ‘White Lotus’ life,” Poggioli told VOA, referring to the television show set at a Sicilian resort. ”Especially Rome — it’s not an easy city. But I’m used to it. I call it home.” 

Poggioli first moved to Italy after college on a Fulbright Scholarship. 

She got her start in journalism in the early 1980s as a correspondent for NPR at a time when she said the outlet “was considered sort of on the liberal fringe.”   

One of her first major stories: a mafia assassination of a prosecutor in Sicily.   

Other stories from her early years include the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981 and the Achille Lauro hijacking in 1985, when Palestinian terrorists seized an Italian cruise ship in the Mediterranean Sea.   

Her work eventually brought her to the Balkans, where she covered wars in countries including Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo and Serbia.  

Looking back, the Rome-based Poggioli is proudest of her coverage of immigration and refugee issues, including the migrant crisis facing countries including Italy and Greece.  

“Those have been the most consequential events that I’ve covered,” she said.

When she retired in March, she was the longest-serving reporter on NPR’s international desk.   

“For many, her name is synonymous with NPR,” the outlet wrote in a statement announcing the reporter’s departure.

Poggioli is exiting a career in journalism just as the industry faces new challenges in Italy.    

One of the most striking aspects for Poggioli is how inaccessible to the media Meloni has made herself. Press conferences are few and far between.   

“There haven’t been any specific curbs or crackdowns,” Poggioli said. “But there’s a lot of wariness, I’d say, about a government that doesn’t make itself accessible to the press.” 

More concerning is the use of lawsuits to target reporters. At least four members of the current government, including Meloni, have filed lawsuits against journalists and outlets over their coverage, according to the free expression group Article 19.

The Italian Embassy in Washington did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.   

In Italy, “investigative journalists are still very much under pressure, and they face threats and lawsuits, and are often overwhelmed by them,” Jessica White, who researches European media freedom at Freedom House, told VOA. “This is a real concern for press freedom in the country. And it also results in higher levels of self-censorship.”  

White is the author of a June Freedom House report looking at conditions for media in Italy and five other European countries.

Despite the challenges, the threat to press freedom in Italy is minor compared with elsewhere. In terms of media freedom, the country ranks 41 out of 180 countries, according to Reporters Without Borders.

To Poggioli, another noteworthy shift is taking place at the state-run broadcaster.

Whenever there’s a change of government in Italy, Poggioli said, the new leadership traditionally installs its own people at the upper levels of state broadcaster RAI.

But, she said, “it’s been more drastic this time.” 

In late May, The Guardian reported that Meloni’s government was exerting “ruthless” influence at RAI.

“They want to take control of Rai and change the narrative to their way of thinking,” one anonymous source told The Guardian.

Several RAI executives and reporters have resigned, with some citing government pressure.  

Among them is former RAI Chief Executive Carlo Fuortes, who in his resignation letter said, “Since the beginning of 2023, there has been a political conflict concerning me and my position, which is weakening Rai and the public service.”  

Still, one source at RAI, who requested anonymity to speak freely about their employer, told VOA they haven’t experienced significant changes.

“The thing is the left has dominated the cultural language for decades,” they said. ”Now the right wants to gain some lost points.” 

RAI did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment. 

The changes facing the state broadcaster may underscore the significance of outlets like NPR.   

Investing in public media “helps bridge information gaps and fosters an informed citizenry, which is vital for a well-functioning democracy,” Karen Rundlet, who works at the journalism nonprofit the Knight Foundation, told VOA.  

For Poggioli, public broadcasting opened the door to her career.

“I saw a good portion of the world and some very nice experiences. And unfortunately, as journalists, we also cover a lot of really depressing stories too,” she said. “But it’s been a really good ride.”  

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