State Italian broadcaster Rai has axed a factual organized crime series by Gomorrah creator Roberto Saviano out of the blue, prompting accusations of political interference.

Rai CEO Roberto Sergio confirmed the cancellation in an interview with daily newspaper Il Messaggero on Wednesday, saying the move was “corporate and not political.”

Saviano, who is a long-standing harsh public critic of right-wing Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her government, hit back saying the move was politically motivated.

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Italian media have suggested the decision was linked to Saviano’s repeated reference to controversial far-right politician Matteo Salvini as the “Minister of the Mala Vita”, or “Minister of the criminal underworld” in social media posts.

His use of the phrase dates back to Salvini’s term as Ministry of the Interior in 2019 when Saviano challenged his policies on migrant boats entering Italian waters.

Salvini, who is now Minister of Infrastructure and Deputy Prime Minister in Meloni’s government, is suing Saviano for defamation for his repeated use of this epithet, with the case currently in the courts. Saviano is also facing separate defamation charges bought by Meloni.

Members of the government coalition party Forza Italia are reported to have requested that Saviano’s show be removed from the Rai offering on the basis that his language around Salvini broke the broadcaster’s ethical code.

Sergio would not confirm this was the reason for the axing in the Il Messaggero interview.

The show, titled Insider, Faccia a Faccia Col Il Crimine (Insider, Face To Face With Crime), had already been announced by Rai at a presentation on July 7, unveiling its programming for the upcoming 2023-24 season.

The series takes viewers into the world of organized crime through interviews with different people who have experienced it from the inside from former reformed criminals, to witnesses and undercover agents.

Saviano had already shot four episodes of the second season which was due to start broadcasting on Rai 3 in November.

Commenting on the cancellation, Saviano told Italian news agency Ansa: “It’s clearly a political decision.”

He suggested the cancellation meant the end of the road for the show: “It’s impossible to take the program elsewhere, it belongs to the Rai, where there is no longer room for anti-mafia [programming].”

Italian opposition politician Elly Schlein, who is the leader of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), backed up Saviano’s comments, saying the Lega parties and Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia had forced him out of Rai.

“The Lega and Fratelli d’Italia have managed to stop Roberto Saviano airing on Rai… This ‘Melonian’ act will result in a poorer Rai. I stand with Roberto Saviano,” she said.

Sergio was appointed Rai CEO in May after his predecessor Carlo Fuortes quit complaining of a “political clash” around his role and the broadcaster’s future editorial lines, in the wake of Meloni’s arrival in power last September.

The new RAI head batted back suggestions that he had been put in place as a government stooge in the Il Messaggero interview, saying the broadcaster was more balance and pluralistic than ever and there was no risk of it becoming “TeleMeloni”.

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