Analysis. Roman Mayor Virginia Raggi had been accused in 2016 of abusing her position by appointing the brother of a staffer to a government job. On Sunday she was acquitted, but her party took the opportunity to lash out at the journalists who covered the case.

Rome’s mayor acquitted, but instead of celebration M5S attacks the press

“The political debate must not turn into hatred.” No sooner had those words escaped Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi’s lips than the top leadership of the 5 Star Movement launched a full-scale assault on the press, seizing the pretext of her acquittal on a charge of lying to anti-corruption officials to unload all the bile that had been building up among Grillo’s followers for these past few weeks on their hated enemy.

The barrage of accusations against journalists has been too sustained to be considered spontaneous. After the great uncertainty regarding the verdict, and the leaks from the upper ranks of the party that they would abandon Raggi if she was convicted, it was now time to go on the attack and exact punishment against critical voices.

Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio fired the first shot: “The real plague of this country is the vast majority of intellectually and morally corrupt media.”

It was a classic piece of M5S rhetoric: both the trope of fighting corruption and the notion that they are under siege by a hostile media. But it’s been some time since Di Maio has allowed himself to speak in such tones. And he went on, setting aside the affair in which the Roman mayor was acquitted—indeed, the actual court ruling seemed like an afterthought in his speech—and turning his fire directly on those who have been criticizing the government.

As he did so, he inadvertently revealed his frustration regarding the internal tug-of-war between his party and Matteo Salvini’s far-right Lega. He said the “morally corrupt media … are the same ones who are making war on the government, trying to cause it to fall with a specific method: glorifying the Lega and putting down the Movement, always and everywhere.”

Then came an announcement that sounded very much like a threat: “Soon, we will have a law mandating fair publishers.” Di Maio had even more insults for journalists, calling them “lowly jackals, who every day for the past two years have been trying to convince the M5S to drop their support for Raggi with their ridiculous insinuations”—pretending to be unaware of the fact that many of the attacks on the mayor, together with the most damaging leaks, have come from within the 5 Star Movement itself.

One of the M5S insiders who is not exactly a friend of the Rome mayor is Paola Taverna, who, on this occasion, also claimed the moral high ground: “Whoever has done nothing but insult, discredit and look for dirt even where there was none until yesterday, should now take a look in the mirror and draw their own conclusions.” Another, Roberta Lombardi, who has called Raggi’s right-hand man, Renato Marra, “the virus that has infected the Movement” and who never spared any criticism of the mayor of Rome, her party colleague, now tweeted: “The acquittal of mayor Raggi is an opportunity for the administration on the Capitoline Hill to turn the page and continue with a renewed impetus for the good of Rome and its inhabitants.”

This powerful barrage against the press has swelled to a crescendo in record time. Even the Minister for the South, Barbara Lezzi, expressed her support for Raggi while accusing “the dirt, the vulgarity, the insults and lies that they have piled on you in these two years, especially through the majority of the press, which has been used for a political game as violent as it was petty.”

From faraway on the other side of the world, Alessandro Di Battista was no less melodramatic: “Don’t get angry with the prosecutors, they just did their job,” said the former Deputy who is set to return to Italy, apparently in order to lead the 5 Stars in the campaign for the European elections. According to his message to Raggi, “the guilty are those who have insulted you, these hacks who don’t even prostitute themselves out of necessity, but because of their wickedness alone”—and who “have been hurling tons of dirt at you for more than two years, with unprecedented violence.”

“They struck at you as a woman, but they are the whores,” ends Di Battista.

And we have also been treated with a blog post from none other than the founder of the M5S himself, Beppe Grillo. For a while now he has been following the action from the sidelines. “Hit them strong, before they catch their breath,” he advised Raggi, referring here to journalists, and joining the chorus in taking aim at the media.

“How often do we hear repeated that ‘Sentences are not something to comment on, but something to respect.’ It’s a saying that I hate. It annoys me like an iguana on a dashboard,” he wrote, coining an expression. “They don’t comment because they never have enough information, enough knowledge and enough of a connection with the world of jurisprudence. It’s a world that is alien to many, and perhaps much too familiar to some others.”

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