In a culture based on vendettas and fear of reprisals, on the Mafia code of silence, Pino Maniaci rebelled by very publicly turning this culture on its head. He produces a daily TV show chiefly dedicated to Mafia crime.
You know when you are nearing Pino Maniaci's studios: It's not the military police escort parked discreetly nearby, it's the smell of cigarette smoke. The businessman turned crime-fighting TV anchorman and reporter smokes three packets a day, "sometimes four," he chuckles.
"I love my land, and this land needs missionary journalists: journalists who consider the job a real mission," says Maniaci, who had no journalistic experience before starting his two-hour anti-Mafia daily news program. "I wanted to give reliable, authentic news. That means telling things as they are."
In 1999, Maniaci, previously the owner of a small construction company, bought a local television station in Partinico, a small, nondescript town, some 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the Sicilian capital of Palermo. It changed his life radically - and forever. A year later, "Telejato" became Sicily's first and only anti-Mafia TV channel, and Maniaci became the local Mafia's number one persona non grata.
Maniaci is a master of bravado, swearing and cracking jokes about his adversaries in between puffs on his cigarette. It's not that he's unaware of the dangers of reporting on the Mafia. Indeed, he's has had his tires slashed repeatedly, brake cables cut, cars burnt out, cars shot at and windshields shattered by bullets. He's received so many threatening letters that he's stopped reading them.
He's also survived an attempt on his life, which left him with four broken ribs, a broken leg, a black eye and broken teeth. He revels in telling the tale of his lucky escape: "When I was a boy, my father taught me to do up my tie with a double knot. They tried to strangle me by pulling it tight from both ends. So my dad saved me, because the double knot just doesn't pull very tight."
Maniaci does admit he's scared - both for himself and for his family - though he manages to turn his fear into a joke: "In our old studios, the biggest room was the bathroom, and I always said that was really useful for when we got really scared. Now we've got two bathrooms!"
On a mission
Part of what makes "Telejato" special is that Maniaci's crew - which frequently includes his daughter as a reporter and his son as a cameraman - goes to the scene when they get wind of any breaking news, rather than relying on news agencies or press releases to cover stories.
"If anything happens in our area, we're always there, including for Mafia arrests," he says. "We're always the first to arrive."
The station's exposés have led to dozens of arrests. The team has often worked closely with the Catturandi di Palermo, a special police squad concerned with criminals in hiding.
"Telejato" also gives the full names of Mafiosi who have been arrested, breaking from the habit among Sicilian journalists to only publish their initials in the hope of avoiding reprisals.
"They consider themselves men of honor, and for us, dishonoring them is a question of honor," Maniaci says of his team of family members and volunteers.
His courageous attitude has had a great impact on the area to which "Telejato" broadcasts, where, he says, 90 percent of shopkeepers no longer pay pizzo, protection money. He has also succeeded in establishing a strong relationship of trust with their viewers.
"In Partinico there are 32,000 inhabitants, and we have 32,000 informers," Maniaci says. "If a car is set on fire they don't call the fire brigade, they call me first and then I call the fire brigade."
The positive influence his news program has had on the area is also his inspiration to continue.
"Good journalism has a strong impact on a place: It directs, it corrects," he says, quoting the words of Giuseppe Fava, a Sicilian journalist killed by the Mafia in 1984.
Curiously, the Mafia are among Telejato's avid viewers. Since the introduction of digital terrestrial television, the station's reception has spread throughout the province of Palermo, and Maniaci says the prisoners in the city's jail all watch his program.
Several years ago, the station conducted an interview in the town of Corleone with the brother of one of the biggest Mafia bosses, who openly declared he watched "Telejato." Soon after came a surprising revelation about the man's then fugitive brother: "Bernardo Provenzano himself had an antenna pointed in the direction of 'Telejato' to pick it up," says Maniaci. "If you listen to the police wire taps, you can hear our theme tune!"
Today, Maniaci exudes a sense of confidence that his home is changing for the better. A significant amount of Mafia activity has moved to northern Italy - proof, he believes, that Sicily has "made antibodies."
And he has undoubtedly contributed to that development, setting up LiberJato, one of numerous new local anti-Mafia associations, and Telejunior, a free school to train budding young journalists. There were 50 students in its first year, last summer, and this year they plan to train 100 more.
With the recognition he has received for his courageous stand against the Mafia, Maniaci thinks Sicilians are starting to realize the mob is not invincible. With a twinkle in his eye and a smile upon his lips, he says that the Mafia's days are numbered.
"There are 5,000 Mafiosi, while there are five million of us," he says. "That's one against a thousand. It's no competition: We can easily kick their asses!"