Partinico, Italy CNN  — 

Pino Maniaci takes aim at a dartboard covered in mugshots – 10 of Sicily’s most notorious mob bosses.

“Bullseye!” he shouts.

It isn’t quite a direct hit, but this journalist and famed mafia hunter doesn’t easily give up.

“These are Sicily’s pieces of shit,” he snaps, tapping the images one by one and detailing their bone-chilling crimes: Matteo Messina Denaro, a fugitive kingpin who Forbes Magazine once ranked as one of the world’s 10 most wanted men. Toto Riina and Salvatore Lo Piccolo, whose bloodlust led to countless murders during Sicily’s second mafia war. Both are in prison.

Another dart flies – heading this time straight for the head of Vito Vitale, who was convicted of helping kidnap and murder the young son of a gang member who turned on him.

Maniaci has also felt the wrath of Vitale.

“His son tried to kill me,” he says.

Maniaci is used to being targeted by the Mafiosos he pursues. Now, in a plot twist as rich as any in “The Godfather,” the reporter is facing extortion charges, accused of the very stand-over tactics he fights against.

But details about that – and the assassination attempt he survived in the land of the Cosa Nostra, one of the world’s largest mafia groups – will have to wait as Maniaci lights up a cigarette and continues the tour of his newsroom, proclaiming “we’ve put away tons of Mafioso but there are still many left.”

It’s hard to put a figure on how many criminals, if any, are serving time solely because of Maniaci’s reporting, but there’s no denying the impact of his tiny, family-run news network. Telejato, his network, shot to fame with an exposé on major polluting by a local distillery before homing in on the mafia and government officials linked to corruption.

Telejato’s proven to be an enemy of the mob for more than 17 years – and Maniaci, the star of the show, knows how to pull a crowd.

Tens of thousands have been known to tune in daily to watch this chain-smoking reporter with a hair-trigger temper attempt to shatter the code of silence. All from Telejato’s home-made studio, complete with beds for his beloved dogs, Cucciolo and Ninni.

Even the late Cosa Nostra godfather Bernardo Provenzano was said to be a regular viewer, keeping tabs on what the network knew.

Maniaci’s love for his homeland seems to fuel his quest to destroy its most notorious failing.

“Sicily is a breathtaking land,” he says. “The sea, the sun, the sights. But all over the world people know it as the land of the mafia, and that really pisses me off.”

Telejato’s walls are plastered with mafia paraphernalia, from newspaper clippings and mugshots to a haunting floor-to-ceiling image of two judges who were assassinated because of their anti-mafia crusades. The portraits of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino are a reminder to the news team that it is treading on dangerous territory.

A photograph of Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone -- both of who were killed by the mafia -- displayed in the "Mafia's Museum Leonardo Sciascia" in Salemi, near Trapani on the Italian island of Sicily on the day of its opening on May 11, 2010.

The shelves also tell the story of Telejato’s groundbreaking work; they bulge with local and international awards. One in particular catches my eye – awarded to Maniaci for his “fearless commitment to legality and justice.”

“People don’t want to speak out here,” he says. “They’re scared of the Mafioso, but somebody has to do the dirty work, and I guess that’s me.”

‘He is Sicily’ – but is he also corrupt?

The small town of Partinico sits about a half hour inland from Sicily’s sparkling north coast, and the anti-mafia station Telejato may very well be its best export. To my surprise, even staff at my secluded hotel on the island of Salina, three hours sailing from Palermo, were familiar with Pino Maniaci’s work.

Partinico is also Maniaci’s home, and he invites me to meet him in the town center. At 10 a.m., the piazza is already bustling with Italy’s majestic orchestra of car horns and booming conversations but Maniaci instantly stands out. His signature Groucho Marx-style moustache is unmissable and his gravelly voice echoes through the piazza as he sings out to passersby between puffs of a cigarette. He’s somewhat of a celebrity here.

In need of caffeine, we head to his favorite cafe, which is also Telejato’s usual spot for morning editorial meetings. The owner, Francesco, goes to incredible lengths to protect his best customers.

Espresso Bar Alessi is Maniaci's favorite cafe. The glass windows seen here are bulletproof.

“Bullet proof glass,” he says, tapping on the shop’s front window. “Look at these … they’re five centimeters thick, and I paid for them just for Pino.”

As Maniaci knocks back an espresso and lights up another smoke, I ask Francesco why he’s done this.

“Because he is Sicily. Simple,” he says. “He is all of us.”

In a place where keeping quiet has long been the key to survival, Telejato has given voice to a generation of Sicilians beaten into submission by gangs.

In 2007, the network’s investigations uncovered a number of barns, owned by mafia families, operating illegally for more than 20 years. These were built on land belonging to others and stood as a symbol of the Cosa Nostra’s grip on power. Not only did they house animals, but they were said to be the headquarters for mafia summits and nicknamed the “Stables of Shame.”

Maniaci’s relentless reporting eventually sparked a major police probe which led to the barns being torn down.

He’s also scooped Italy’s biggest television networks time and again as the only journalist to witness the arrests of mafia bosses. In 2009, Maniaci’s cameras captured the celebrations on the streets as police nabbed Domenico Raccuglia. While spending 15 years in hiding, he was convicted in absentia for murder.

“Police tipped us off to his arrest and the arrest of many other Mafioso,” he says.

If there’s one thing the mafia truly hates, its bad publicity. You go after the mafia, and it comes after you.

The Cosa Nostra is believed to have murdered at least six prominent journalists over the past several decades, and a Parliamentary report found Italian reporters were victims of more than 2,000 “acts of hostility” between 2006 and 2014. These include the torching of their cars and verbal and physical threats. No wonder so many Sicilians feel it’s best not to speak of the mafia at all.

In 2008, the Cosa Nostra wanted to teach Maniaci a lesson.

The son of Vito Vitale, the ruthless mob boss who murdered an informant’s young son and dumped his body in acid, was told to hunt the reporter down.

“I was going back to my car – it was night – and I see another car stop near me,” Maniaci says. “Two guys get out and block my door just as I try to shut it”.

Vitale’s son Michele grabbed onto his tie, yanking violently.

“He wanted to strangle me,” Maniaci says.

But as he began gasping for air – a jarring halt.

And another, and another.

The tie Maniaci wore on air that day was stuck.

“The double knot saved my life,” he says between drags of his cigarette.

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Maniaci shows how the mafia tried to kill him
00:26 - Source: CNN

These days, the reporter sees the lighter side of it all, taking both ends of his neck tie as we talk and pretending to choke himself. Then, clenching his fist and bending his arm, Maniaci gives the ultimate Italian salute to his failed assassin. I’m pretty sure I know what that hand gesture means.

But Maniaci didn’t walk away unharmed. He was brutally beaten, with Vitale knocking out two teeth, breaking his ribs and blackening his eye. the The younger Vitale was sentenced to six and a half years in jail for the attack.

But the dogged journalist was back on air the next day.

“Despite the kicks, the punches and aggression,” he said, opening his show, “Pino Maniaci does not give up. We are going on air despite the black eye and bruises”.

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Maniaci goes on air after getting beaten up
00:17 - Source: CNN

Maniaci says the mafia developed a taste for hassling him. He says they’ve set fire to his car, fired shots into his windshield, cut his brakes and even turned on his staff.

“In the last few years we’ve received many threats from the mafia, not only targeting me but also many of my young staff. Volunteers have even been physically assaulted while filming”, he says.

These days Maniaci has police protection almost everywhere he goes – although now, even the authorities appear to be turning on him.

In May, he was named in a long-running extortion investigation that also implicates nine members of the Cosa Nostra. Prosecutors aren’t alleging any links between the reporter and mafia, but, in the most serious accusation, they claim he pressured local bureaucrats into paying money for more lenient coverage.

Sicily’s military police, the Carabinieri, distributed hidden camera footage. It purports to show the Mayor of Borghetto, a nearby town, handing over money to Maniaci. In the tape, Maniaci can be heard telling Gioacchino De Luca he has information about a damning police investigation into his council’s activities.

“Give me 466 euros … I’ll let you know what they say on Saturday, the prefect is a friend of mine,” the journalist can be heard telling De Luca.

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Italian police video of Pino Maniaci
00:36 - Source: CNN

As Deputy Prosecutor Vittorio Teresi detailed the accusations in a news conference he savaged Maniaci’s status as a champion of anti-corruption.

“The fight against the mafia is done without personal interests. We do not need the anti-mafia services of Mr. Pino Maniaci,” he said.

Chief Prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi also appeared before the media, claiming Maniaci “has repeatedly shown a total disregard for established authority, the police and the judiciary.”

The state took the extraordinary step of banning Maniaci from Partinico, arguing he was using his television show for leverage. The reporter ended up spending a week in exile from his home town, recording his daily program with an iPhone, before the Supreme Court overturned the order.

Given the complexities of Sicily’s legal system, this has all happened before a formal charge has been made. In fact, Maniaci has yet to be questioned.

The case has captivated the Italian island and even audiences abroad, with articles appearing in The Guardian and The Economist suggesting Maniaci’s reputation is on the verge of destruction.

Enter Antonio Ingroia, a former chief anti-mafia prosecutor, protégé to the two murdered Sicilian judges and a man whose work to smash drug and crime cartels earned him an audience with Pope Francis.

Ingroia has taken Maniaci’s case pro bono.

“I have never seen anything like this in my more than 20 years as a lawyer and magistrate … they’re using video to destroy a man of television”, he says.

Former anti-mafia magistrate Antonio Ingroia. Ingroia has taken Maniaci's case pro-bono.

As if this case didn’t have enough twists, Maniaci is launching legal action against the military police. His core claim: The hidden camera footage was tampered with to make him look guilty, because he doesn’t deny taking the money.

“The Mayor’s wife was advertising her shop on Telejato and Pino was picking up the money”, Ingroia says.

“300 euro plus 100 from the month before, and 66 euros in VAT tax. Who extorts for 400 euros and charges tax on it!?”

Ingroia claims Maniaci’s meeting with the mayor lasted about an hour, but was selectively picked apart, professionally edited down to a one-minute clip and then handed out to journalists complete with a press pack.

He’s also suspicious of Mayor De Luca.

“You can see him looking at this hidden camera when he hands the money over, making sure it’s visible. We suspect he was in agreement with police to trap Pino,” Ingroia says.

The burning question here is why? Why would the police or government allegedly go to such efforts to discredit a journalist?

Maniaci says they’re seeking revenge. “We managed to expose officials for mismanaging property seized from the mafia, worth billions of dollars,” he says.

Again, it’s hard to tell if Telejato’s reporting single-handedly sparked the corruption probe, but the scale of it is enormous. The reports focused on Silvana Saguto, a court official responsible for deciding who should take over companies seized by mafia. Saguto, who denies wrongdoing, is accused of taking bribes and parachuting friends and family into cushy, high-paying jobs at these ex-mafia businesses. She is one of 20 people charged.

There is one certainty in all this – it will be a very long time before anyone has any real answers. The only thing more notorious than the mafia is Sicily’s bureaucracy. Maniaci’s legal team admits the case could drag on for a decade. Prosecutors ignored repeated requests to clarify this and refused to answer questions about the case.

It also promises to be a painstaking wait for Telejato’s loyal viewers. When will they know if their anti-mafia hero is innocent or guilty? A target or a turncoat?

On with the show – and the probes

You can tell it’s almost show time.

Reporters suck down cigarettes and clatter away at keyboards in a tiny newsroom no bigger than your average living room. The noise crescendos with a boom from across the room.

“LETIZIA!” Maniaci snaps.

With my very average Italian, I put two and two together and figure he’s asking his reporter Letizia whether her story will be ready.

Letizia is Maniaci’s daughter and a highly regarded journalist; many of the awards crammed onto the newsroom shelves are for her fearless reporting.

But there’s more to Telejato than just naming and shaming. Beyond exposing corruption, the network has led a tireless crusade against protection money.

Its persistent campaign has achieved incredible results across Sicily; and while the irony isn’t lost on me that it’s led by a man who himself is accused of extortion, the impact can’t be ignored.

Protection money, or “pizzo,” is big business for the mafia; it’s estimated eight out of ten businesses still pay a cut, and while the amount depends on the industry, it earns gangs tens of millions of dollars in Palermo alone. To speak about it is considered a dangerous social faux pas, but almost daily, Maniaci and his team plead with viewers to stop paying, to say “addiopizzo” or “goodbye extortion”.

“We’ve formed an association with local companies who want to say no. No to protection money, no to extortion. They have strength in numbers,” Maniaci says.

The group, LiberJato, was born out of a meeting between the reporter and longtime Telejato viewer Francesco Billeci, a local businessman sick of the mob’s financial stranglehold. Dozens of entrepreneurs have signed up, particularly those in the construction industry, where mafia protection rackets expect a cut of about 3%.

Maniaci believes persistence will pay off. He quotes a famous Sicilian novelist: “Leonardo Sciacia said 30 years ago, ‘this city is irredeemable’. I do not believe this.”

There’s no denying Maniaci’s resolve to clean up the “cancer” gripping his land, fending off threats against his life and the lives of his staff. But he is also an enigma and it’s hard to ignore the sinister side of the Maniaci life story. While he claims vendetta in his extortion case, Reporters Without Borders has stripped him, at least temporarily, of his prestigious title as one of the world’s 100 “Information Heroes.”

Enough of that. Maniaci tells me it’s time to work. Butting out his cigarette, he heads to the bathroom, adjusts his tie and combs the moustache as famous in Partinico as the man himself.

Today’s jam-packed rundown has a familiar theme – magistrates, government officials and corruption. Sore points for this old-school reporter.

It’s hard to comprehend: an anti-mafia hero, now accused of mafia-style antics, yet still protesting against them.

The old Sicilian saying “trust no one” is starting to ring true. It’s hard to know who to believe.

Journalists Begona Blanca Munoz, Silvia Buffa, Danilo Daquino, Davide Gambin and Davina Rapaport contributed to this report