Italian media gagged by enemies


Journalists who live in Italy don’t have an easy life. Concentration of media ownership, mafia, job insecurity - the country’s press is being attacked by its enemies on many different fronts.

Media non-governmental organisations have expressed their concern about the situation, which shows no sign of improving. According to the Freedom House Annual Report, Italy passed from a ‘free’ to a ‘partly free’ country between 2008 and 2009. In 2010 the Freedom House ranked Italy 72nd, behind countries like Mali and South Korea.

Reporters Without Borders expressed similar concerns in its 2010 Press Freedom Index: “The state of press freedom in Italy, caught between draconian draft reforms and threats from the mafia, is more and more worrying to its European neighbours”.

It added mafia groups to the list of press freedom predators in 2009. Roberto Saviano, who wrote a book about Campania’s Camorra mafia group, is perhaps the most famous investigative journalist abroad to be receiving threats by the organised crime, but by no means the only one [Video]. According to the NGO, 10 journalists in Italy live under police protection.

Lorenzo Frigerio, a journalist writing for the National Observatory on Information about Legality and Mafia [Osservatorio nazionale sull’informazione per la legalità e contro le mafie] explains that in recent years the mafia has started using legal action as a way to stop journalists:

“Libel action and claim for damages are today one of the instruments that the organised crime uses to hush up the restless journalists and the uncomfortable newspapers.”

Frigerio describes the efficiency of this approach as “faster and more effective than a bullet’”. Most of the time editors prefer to drop a controversial story rather than spend a lot of time and money in a trial defending it.

Berlusconi and the broadcast media

Concentration of media ownership in the hands of the Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is another aspect that concerns NGOs. He controls the three public television channels and owns the private broadcasting group Mediaset, in addition to a newspaper, news magazine, publishing house and media buyer.

Unlike Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, who sold his television station under opposition pressure, Berlusconi has never shown any intention of doing so.

Berlusconi’s conflict of interests dangerously threatens plurality of information, and there has been no lack of abuse of media power throughout his political career. Public broadcaster RAI, whose board is appointed by the government, abstained from political programming in the run-up to regional elections for the sake of fairness, but in practice this left all commentary to Mediaset, the broadcaster owned by Berlusconi.

Control, whether direct or indirect, of the majority of televisions channels does play a role during an electoral campaign; according to Reporters Without Borders, television provides the main source of news for 80% of the Italian population.

Television media controlled by the government also has other consequences. Berlusconi has tried in many ways to control journalists and their work: he has intervened during political discussion shows, accusing the journalists of slander, and also believed to have been involved in some suspensions.

Michele Santoro was a victim of disciplinary action after having insulted the director general of RAI during a program he was conducting. Others don’t get their contract renewed, like Serena Dandini, whose program ‘Parla con me’ [talk with me] didn’t receive the go ahead from the board of directors.

Berlusconi’s attempt to stop the media criticising him has no geographical borders. In 2001 he sued The Economist for publishing a cover story analysing the reasons why he was unfit to lead Italy.

Legal actions and abuse of authority meant that in 2009 Berlusconi himself came close to being added to the list of predators of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard.

“Berlusconi is on the verge of being added to our list of Predators of Press Freedom. This would be a first for a European leader”.

An attempt to gag investigative journalism

One of the darkest moments the Italian press has experienced was last summer, when the government proposed a ‘gag’ law. If this law had been approved, journalists would not have been able to publish extracts from wiretapped phone calls.

This legislative reform would have seriously encumbered investigative journalism and according to Reporters without Borders, is “incompatible with EU democratic standards”.

Policy-makers have been accused by the opposition and by the Italian Journalists Trade Union (FNSI) of defending the interests of those politicians that are being investigated by justice.

Berlusconi was recently involved in a sex scandal resulting from the publication of a recorded telephone conversation, which proved that he intervened with the justice system to liberate a 17 year old call-girl from prison by saying she was Egyptian President Mubarak’s granddaughter.

To defend himself, he tried to discredit the media, telling citizens: “Don’t trust the newspapers, they dupe you”.

He has since repeated his intention to pass a bill regarding phone wiretapping, but the government has assured that there is no concrete political decision behind this.

President of the Italian Journalists Trade Union, Roberto Natale, immediately reacted, and declared he is ready to organise another street protest, like the one against the gag law that took place last summer.

European Parliament requests intervention

NGOs are not the only ones concerned about press freedom in Italy: the situation has been discussed in Brussels as well, even if the alarm bell has not yet truly been rung.

Members of the European Parliament met on 10 November to discuss the topic and express their concern. Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, Member of the European Parliament with the Free Democratic Party of Germany, said at the time:

“We need the courage by the Commission to ring a bell, to say ‘the situation in some countries is not ok’, the Commission has to set some basic standards that everybody has to accept.”

The same need to ask the European Union to intervene has been expressed by David-Maria Sassoli, Member of the European Parliament with the Italian Democratic Party.

“In the European Parliament we did put a question to the European Commission, we said ‘give us standards for public broadcast televisions’ for instance”.

The majority of MEPs present at the meeting agreed that the situation of the press in Italy is unacceptable, and that the European Union needs to react. Marietje Schaake, Member of the European Parliament with the Dutch Social Liberal Party Democrats’66, observed:

“We see the EU as a community of values, when we talk about the EU as a global player, and as an entity that should defend freedom of expression, fundamental freedoms, human rights, we often get the questions: ‘But what about Italy?’ ‘How is the situation inside the EU?’”

“How can the EU talk to countries like Iran, like Egypt, China, with any credibility when the standards of freedom of expression, access to information, press independence, are so dire in a country like Italy which is a Member State of the EU”.

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