How Sea-Watch ‘battle of the captains’ exposed Salvini’s disregard for rule of law

Tiziana Fabi, AFP | Matteo Salvini, Italy's hardline interior minister, has made the fight against migrant rescue ships a personal matter.

Italy’s tussle with the Sea-Watch migrant rescue ship is a textbook case of politics in the age of Matteo Salvini. For weeks the hardline minister railed at the boat’s captain; and when a judge proved him wrong, he challenged her at the ballot box.


When Carola Rackete stepped onto Italian soil last week under police escort, having forced her way into the port of Lampedusa with 40 migrants rescued at sea, the Sea-Watch captain’s nighttime landing was greeted with applause from a small crowd gathered on the quay in Italy’s southernmost outpost in the Mediterranean Sea.

It was not immediately clear whether the bystanders were applauding her defiant standoff with Italy’s powerful Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, nicknamed “Il Capitano” (the Captain) by his supporters, or her arrest. But there was no mistaking the sickening insults levelled at the German national by a tiny group of protesters, including members of Salvini’s hard-right Lega party, who clamoured for handcuffs, branded her a “gypsy”, and said they wished she might be gang-raped by the “niggers” on her boat.

“They were just a handful, and perhaps only one person shouting obscenities, but they got much of the media’s attention,” notes Stefano Ondelli, a professor of linguistics at the University of Trieste, who has written several articles about extremism and populist rhetoric in Italian political discourse.

Sea-Watch captain Carole Rackete is arrested by Italian police after docking in the port of Lampedusa.
Sea-Watch captain Carole Rackete is arrested by Italian police after docking in the port of Lampedusa. AFP

The Lampedusa incident, and its massive amplification on social networks, reflects a well-known trend in current political debate. Across Europe, the increasing polarisation fostered by mass media has seen moderate voices drowned out by extremists. Ondelli likens this polarised landscape to a football stadium, where the fans at opposing ends make all the noise while those in the middle stands are largely quiet.

“Those in the kops [Editor's Note: the stands furthest from the centre of the action, where the more boisterous fans sit] don’t analyse the match; their job is to support the team,” he explains. “Political debate in the media is increasingly following the same pattern: we’re getting more polarisation, to the detriment of analysis”.

Politics of insult

Ondelli traces this evolution to societal changes and the explosion of mass media from the late 1990s, when politicians “gradually started speaking in simplified – or, rather, simplistic – terms”. The shifting language has favoured the development of extreme and exclusive positions that are conveyed quickly and forcefully, dividing the world in white or black, right or wrong.

“Most people now get their news from the web, where argumentation tends to give way to the endless repetition of clear-cut points of view, shared with people who are often already like-minded,” he says. “It’s more important to repeat the same theme again and again, each time in a more forceful manner.”

When it comes to shirking analysis of complex issues in favour of simplistic slogans, and endlessly repeating them, Italy’s serial-tweeting interior minister is a world-beater.

A consummate tactician, the Lega leader has mastered the transition from the gibberish that once defined Italian politics to the man-of-the-people talk that is a hallmark of populism. His blunt talk and provocative statements have made him a darling of television chat shows, while his rambling posts on social networks have helped him eclipse both his coalition allies and the opposition.

Like US President Donald Trump, whom he admires, Salvini is fond of settling scores and launching personal attacks on Twitter (both men are also prone to capitalising words at random for extra emphasis).

Even before last week’s dramatic denouement to the Sea-Watch standoff, Salvini had already disparaged Rackete as an "uppity", “spoiled child” who had “broken [his] balls”, and "a heroine of the left, born white, rich and German". In interviews, he branded her an "outlaw" plying the Mediterranean and "breaking laws". And when she forced her way into port, colliding with a police vessel, he thundered that she was a "criminal" who committed an "act of war" against Italy.

“Salvini is more aggressive and less inclined to self-censorship than traditional politicians, though he is not the only one to do so successfully,” says Ondelli, pointing to the case of comedian turned political agitator Beppe Grillo, the co-founder of the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement, who famously toured the country urging Italians to say vaffanculo (f**k off) to a discredited political class.

Nor is the focus on stereotypes and clichés a prerogative of the political right, Ondelli adds.

“Judging by media accounts, both right- and left-leaning politicians appear obsessed with the figure of 'blacks', the former referring to ethnic Africans and the latter to neo-fascists [traditionally associated with black shirts],” he explains. “Hence the disproportionate focus on minuscule groups like Casapound [a neo-fascist party that has drawn considerable attention from local and international media], who are absolutely not representative of the broader public.”

Common sense

Ondelli has written about the changing vocabulary adopted by Salvini since coming to power in 2018, including his habit of tempering radical statements with words more typical of mature politicians – such as the term buonsenso, or “common sense”.

“Common sense normally evokes dialogue, moderation and compromise, but in this case it is used to channel and normalise Salvini’s aggressiveness,” the professor explains. “Thus, calling for the chemical castration of pedophiles and rapists, for instance, becomes a matter of ‘common sense’.”

Salvini’s privileged platform as interior minister and deputy prime minister, and his ability to sideline other government members (to the point that he is perceived at home and abroad as Italy’s strongman), have placed him and his statements at the heart of the political debate, effectively blurring the line between the extreme and the mainstream.

Shoshana Fine, a migration expert and visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says Salvini’s “toxic language” has polluted the debate about search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, whipping up public hysteria and confusing notions of security, migration and humanitarian obligations.

“Public opinion is shaped by the media, and it’s shaped by political decision makers,” she says. “Salvini is on the extreme, but the space in which he situates himself, one in which he criminalises humanitarian assistance, is also taken on by the mainstream.”

Fine notes that Salvini and other interior ministers across Europe have politicised legal issues and extended their remit to include the field of search and rescue operations, which would normally be a prerogative of other departments.

“Search and rescue is a question of international maritime law. We’re not speaking about migration governance here, we’re speaking about the right to life,” she explains. “The securitisation of maritime assistance is very much in a continuum with the securitisation of migration, so we’re in a situation where for an asylum seeker to reach Europe he or she basically has to ‘break’ the law.”

‘I take lessons from no one’

Salvini brands the charities whose rescue vessels patrol the southern Mediterranean as do-gooders who foster the traffickers' business. His Lega party last month introduced rules effectively closing Italy's ports to rescue ships run by NGOs, threatening transgressors with fines of up to 50,000 euros ($56,500) and the impounding of their vessels.

On top of this, the Sea-Watch skipper risked up to 10 years in jail for forcing her way past a police boat that tried to block her.

Instead, a judge ruled on Tuesday that the captain had not broken the law by crashing through a naval blockade. Judge Alessandra Vella said Rackete had merely carried out her duty to protect life, ordering her release from house arrest.

True to form, Salvini reacted with a furious rant on social media, expressing his “disgust” and “shame” at the magistrate’s ruling, and suggesting she may have “drunk a little glass of wine” with the Sea-Watch captain. He then challenged the judge to stand for the left-wing opposition at the next election, implying a political bias and displaying a startling disregard for the rule of law.

The magistrate soon became a target of abuse on social media, much of it sexist, though she also won plaudits for refusing to be intimidated.

“Alessandra Vella has reminded us that Italian democracy is – fortunately – still founded on the constitutional balance of powers,” wrote journalist Gad Lerner in an op-ed for Italian daily La Repubblica, in which he praised the judge for remaining “immune to the hysteria whipped up by an executive power that overstepped its authority by clamouring for the Sea-Watch captain to be jailed.”

The Lega leader’s contempt for judges who don’t rule in his favour mirrors his dismissal of all criticism coming from the European Union, as evidenced by the recurrent mantra, “I take lessons from no one”.

“Salvini says his authority comes directly from the people,” Ondelli explains. “Whoever disagrees with him has to keep quiet and refrain from giving lessons, or else take him on at the ballot box.”

Earlier this year, the interior minister declined to submit himself to judicial scrutiny after a court ruled that he should be tried for refusing to allow migrants to disembark from a rescue ship. After previously boasting that he was ready to be tried and proud of “having defended the country from illegal immigrants”, Salvini got his allies in the Senate to block the criminal case.

He may have to do so again following the Sea-Watch standoff, with Rackete’s lawyer announcing on Friday that his client – who has gone into hiding after reportedly receiving numerous threats – will sue the minister for defamation.

"It's not easy to make a complete list of all the insults Salvini has made these last weeks and his incitements to commit a crime against Carola, which is an even graver offence when coming from an interior minister," said Alessandro Gamberini. “In the circus of online bullies, it is Salvini who stirs the troubled waters of hate,” the lawyer added. “A defamation lawsuit is a way to send a signal."

Hours later, a second charity rescue vessel forced its way into the port of Lampedusa with 41 migrants on board, suggesting that Rackete's decision to call Salvini's bluff has inspired other NGOs to do the same – and paving the way for further tussles with Italy's Capitano.

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