Is Italy’s mainstream media doing its part in covering the upcoming referendum?


After spending more than a year collecting the 500,000 signatures necessary to demand a referendum in Italy, the activist groups behind the campaign are denouncing the mainstream media’s lack of impartial coverage of the event.

On 12-13 June, Italy will hold a new referendum on the future of water ownership, the use of nuclear energy and the special immunity from trial clause for government members. However, with only a few days left until the vote, information on the themes and even on the referendum procedure itself is still elusive.

“The future is at stake,” says 18 year old activist Lola.“This is one of those calls which will determine our future, the future of democracy. That’s why most of my schoolmates want to vote, even the ones who don’t care about politics.”

“How did you find out about the referendum?” I ask her.

“Well, my source of information is Facebook, there’s a lot of information out there. I think we’ve reached a turning point,” she says. “People don’t realise that we youths are growing up and that we don’t rely on the mainstream media anymore. We don’t even have a tv-set in the house!”

Freedom of expression and democracy

Since the first referendum in Italy in 1946, when the people opted for the country to be Republic instead of a Monarchy, Italy has lived up to its ambition to become a democratic, pluralistic society where freedom and participation would be synonymous and all citizens would be allowed to express their opinion freely.

Many other referendums followed – on a variety of subjects such as divorce, abortion -, involving large masses of citizens in the shaping of a new, modern Italy where freedom of speech went hand in hand with the right to be informed.

Even during the bloody 1970s, despite harsh social clashes and political extremism, publication of any form of radical propaganda or information was permitted.

Initially created as a means to foster participation and democratic values, referendum campaigns have heavily relied on mass media to reach their goal, since results are only valid if a quorum of 50 percent + 1 of eligible voters go to the polls.


Prime Minister Bettino Craxi in 1991 was the first politician to explicitly call on the public to boycott the referendum and “go to the beach” instead, in an attempt to prevent the government from being overruled by the people.

Since then, every following government has tried to schedule referendums as close as possible to the summer season, in the hope to tempt potential voters to enjoy the sea breeze rather than to cast their ballot on thorny matters.

“What information?”

If the procedure seems complicated though, the same can be said of the structure of the national broadcaster Rai, which is directly controlled by the Parliament and therefore by the majority in power. As a result, Rai’s programming committee has repeatedly been prevented from reaching an agreement on the amount of air time to be allocated to each question of the referendum.

Over-complication seems to be a leitmotiv in Italian democracy, as referendum debates on Italian television need to be planned ahead of time in minute detail: broadcasting channels, guests to be invited…

After a one-month delay, Rai finally issued a binding regulation for public television and radio broadcasters to be upheld during the last days of the campaign. 

This was too little and too late for opposition groups, who called for protests and squatting of public places to claim a fair amount of (unbiased) information on the referendum.

Although Italians already said “No” to nuclear energy in a referendum in 1987, the same question is asked again today, and the campaigners are hoping that the topic will break the spell of the “no quorum” outcome.

The quorum has not been reached since 1995, partly due to the lack of attention given by the mainstream media on the themes of the referendum.

“Do you think there is enough information about the referendum?” I ask Alessandra, a employee at Rai. She answers with a question: “What information?”

This must be the reason for the re-appearance of the Ghost, a man wrapped in white cloth to symbolise the lack of democracy and neutral information on Italian television.

The Ghost denounces the lack of neutral information on Italian television about the referendum

The Ghost last appeared on a tv show in 1997 to protest against the choice of low audience hours as the time to broadcast information on the referendum. 

Information seems indeed the only way to encourage the creation of a more aware public opinion, provided that the mainstream media is not controlled by the political power in place.