The European lawmakers in Italy’s main opposition party are suing the controversial new head of the country’s public broadcasting service, after he claimed in an interview with Haaretz last week that they received their funding from Jewish-American billionaire George Soros.
Lawyers are finalizing the lawsuit against Marcello Foa on behalf of 26 members of the European Parliament affiliated with Italy’s center-left Democratic Party, Patrizia Toia, the head of the party’s delegation to the parliament, said Thursday.
Foa, who has close links to the populist coalition government in Rome, said in the interview, published last Friday, that the frequent criticism of Soros by far-right movements across the world was not tainted by anti-Semitism. Instead, he said, it was rooted solely in the actions of the progressive philanthropist.
“Had he been attacked as a Jew it would be anti-Semitism, but this is not what happens and I think it is offensive to use anti-Semitism as an alibi to stifle such a debate,” Foa said, adding: “Otherwise, in the long run you are just encouraging and legitimizing anti-Semitism.”
Foa’s next comment soon became front-page news in Italy: “A while ago, the news came out that Soros financed an enormous number of European Parliament members – including the entire delegation of the Democratic Party,” he said, citing an example of Soros’ alleged activities.
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Haaretz found no evidence to support that statement.
Foa’s claim was seemingly based on widely debunked stories, circulated last year in populist and Euroskeptic media sources. These cited a report by a consulting firm that listed members of the European Parliament seen as potentially inclined to support the values of Soros’ Open Society Foundations. The firm’s report made no mention of financing these politicians.
Open Society lobbies European institutions like multiple other civil society movements, NGOs and companies, said Bruno Selun, author of the report and director of the consulting firm, Kumquat Consult. “When a new legislature starts, it's perfectly normal for all these groups to look for the MEPs most likely to listen to them, so that instead of knocking on 751 doors at the European Parliament they can concentrate their efforts on a smaller pool of politicians,” Selun told Haaretz.
The report was based on publicly available information and its meaning has often been misrepresented and distorted after it was leaked, he said.
Populist and far-right groups from Hungary to Italy and the United States have made Soros the target of hostile media campaigns, and on Tuesday an explosive device was found in a mailbox at the billionaire’s New York home.
The Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor often features as the main character in conspiracy theories that depict him as a gray eminence pulling the strings of anything from the financial industry to immigration or other progressive causes.
Critics have pointed out how much these hoaxes resemble anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that view the Jews as controlling the world.
Foa’s allegation last week was immediately denounced by the Democratic Party as “fake news” and caused a political storm in Italy, with leading opposition figures calling on the 55-year-old to resign from his new post as head of public broadcaster Rai.
“The president of Rai is a liar, walking fake news,” former prime minister and Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi told a political rally in Florence last Sunday. Referring to Foa’s appointment, he said it was “an unprecedented scandal in the history of the Italian media.” He concluded that “not even Berlusconi had come to this,” a reference to Italy’s controversial former prime minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi.
“The accusations spread by Foa are very serious, libelous and damaging to my reputation as a journalist and European lawmaker. We’ll see him in court,” said David Sassoli, a former Rai journalist and now a politician for the Democratic Party and vice-president of the European Parliament.
Foa wrote in a Facebook post last Friday that he had clearly distanced himself from “any form of racism and extremism” in the interview, and that the wave of criticism was politically motivated.
While he did not deny saying that Soros had given money to the Italian politicians, he conceded, in a later addition to the post the same day, that “naturally, being considered close, as that report noted, is very different from being financed.”
The head of Italy’s public broadcaster is considered an authoritative figure, charged with ensuring that journalists for state radio and TV channels remain independent and unbiased – despite the country’s often chaotic and polarized political scene.
In a front page Op-Ed commenting on the Haaretz interview, the left-leaning daily La Repubblica cited past, storied Rai presidents and asked: “Can you imagine any of them telling an authoritative foreign newspaper that an entire parliamentary delegation of the main opposition party of his own country is secretly supported by a finance tycoon?”
Foa worked as an executive for a Swiss Italian-language media group and as a conservative columnist for Il Giornale, a daily owned by Berlusconi. He was tapped to head Rai by Rome’s new governing coalition, formed last spring by the far-right, anti-immigration League party and the grassroots anti-establishment populists of the Five Star Movement. His appointment came after a long, fierce political battle and was seen as a big win for the new populist government.
Foa is considered one of the ideologues behind the rise of an international populist movement and introduced League leader and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini to former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon during one of the latter’s recent trips to Europe.
Foa’s confirmation process over the summer was a stormy affair, with Italian and international media scrutinizing his past work as a journalist. He was accused of helping spread fake news, such as the hoax that Hillary Clinton participated in satanic dinners before the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He was also criticized for backing conspiracy theories about the purported dangers of vaccines and for claiming that some gay rights activists were trying to “eradicate the natural sexual identity” of the majority.
During his Haaretz interview, Foa acknowledged some past mistakes but said those statements had been cherry-picked and distorted as part of a political smear campaign against him. He insisted that he supports gay rights and does not back anti-vaccine campaigns, but simply looks at all issues with a critical eye.
Foa said he was outraged that he had been accused of divulging false information as he had long styled himself as a crusader against fake news. The main goal of his visit to Israel last week was to deliver a lecture at the Italian cultural institute in Tel Aviv on the threat fake news poses to democracy.
However, while Foa acknowledges there are hoaxes and extremist statements online and in the independent media, he insists the main problem today lies in the bias of the mainstream media. He alleges that it often produces fabricated or manipulated news to favor the powers that be, thus pushing people to look for alternative sources.