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Wire Tapping Troubles in Italy

As ever, lots is going on in Italy.  From films criticising the current ‘regime’ to proposals to save Italy millions.  What all these goings-on have in common is controversy, as often seems to be the case in Italy. One thing in particular is causing a major stir – the Berlusconi government’s modifications to Italy’s telephone surveillance or ‘wire-tapping’ laws.

On the wire-tapping front, something which stood out was the public stance taken last week by the USA on the proposed changes to Italy’s wire-tapping legislation.  The United States does not often comment publicly on Italian shenanigans, but this time it felt ought to.  The US Justice Department is concerned that the new legislation will make it much more difficult to crack down on organised crime.

Yesterday, Monday, Berlusconi called for the legislative process on the wire-tapping front to be accelerated to light speed.  Maybe he has a few important phone calls to make?

While Berlusconi is in a hurry to push this law through, others, including many journalists, are worried that the legislation will effectively gag Italy’s press.

As I write this, politicians are feverishly working away on the new wire tapping rules in the hope that the wording will prove acceptable to both of Italy’s parliamentary chambers. If the wording is not one hundred percent OK, the draft law will drift back down to Italy’s house of deputies – where it was proposed by Italy’s current justice minister, Angelino Alfano. Then, if the right words cannot be found, the law risks yo-yoing back and forth between Italy’s two houses.

Why does Berlusconi want this legislation?

The Berlusconi government is claiming that wire-tapping in Italy has got out of hand, to the extent that it is threatening the privacy of all Italians.  Others, though, believe that the new legislation is more about keeping scandals out of Italy’s press.  What Italy’s media has been doing is publishing transcripts of wire-taps before anyone has been dragged into Italy’s overcrowded courts.  To an extent this can lead to convictions without a trial, so one can understand, in part, why Berlusconi wants to clamp down.  However, one is under the impression that certain people release these transcripts in an attempt to dissuade some from undertaking corrupt business practices.

The surveillance of telephone conversations is one of the few ways it is possible to catch criminals and those up to no good with their trousers down in Italy.  Several high level Italian politicians, up to and including one Silvio Berlusconi himself, have had conversations recorded.  One of Berlusconi’s conversations, in which he did his level best to have a political chat-show, Annozero, taken off-air, ended up in the papers, much to Berlusconi’s chagrin.  This could explain Berlusconi’s renewed enthusiasm for legislation to make it difficult for wire-taps to be arranged, and much more difficult for them to end up in the papers.  Under the proposed amendments to wire-tapping rules, should part or all of the transcripts of these recorded conversations make it into the papers before investigations have reached court, the editors of the newspapers concerned risk heavy fines.

Challenge to Press Freedom in Italy

Italy’s journalists see the new law as a serious challenge to press freedom in Italy.  Indeed, so worried are they that this evening’s RAI 2 8:30 news broadcast carried a little additional piece in which the channel’s journalists drew attention to the negative effect this new law, if it is passed, would have on the rights of Italian’s to ‘freedom of communication’, which is guaranteed under Article 21 of the Italian Constitution:

Article 21  [Freedom of Communication]
(1) Everyone has the right to freely express thoughts in speech, writing, and by other communication.
(2) The press may not be controlled by authorization or submitted to censorship.
(3) Seizure is permitted only by judicial order stating the reason and only for offences expressly determined by the press law or for violation of the obligation to identify the persons responsible for such offences.
(4) In cases of absolute urgency where immediate judicial intervention is impossible, periodicals may be seized by the judicial police, who must immediately and in no case later than 24 hours report the matter to the judiciary.  If the measure is not validated by the judiciary within another 24 hours, it is considered revoked and has no effect.
(5) The law may, by general provision, order the disclosure of financial sources of periodical publications.
(6) Publications, performances, and other exhibits offensive to public morality are prohibited.  Measures of prevention and repression against violations are provided by law.

Mini-Update: 25th May, 2010 – After burning the midnight oil, Italy’s government has thrashed out new wording to the wire-tapping legislation changes.

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It looks as though the potential gag on Italy’s press may be slackened a little, although whether Berlusconi will be happy with the concessions remains to be seen.  Italy’s opposition parties remain unconvinced that the changes will be enough to ensure that Italy’s press remains free, so the story is not over yet.  And, as mentioned a little later on in this post, a challenge on the grounds that the new law does not respect the spirit of the Italian constitution is possible, if it passes and is signed by Italy’s president.

More here, in Italian, over on the La Repubblica website: Intercettazioni, prima approvazione del ddl 
Alfano: “Misure più morbide sulla stampa” -“Interception, approval of the Alfano ddl: “Softer measures for the press”.

End of mini-update

Berlusconi Has a Tight Grip on Prime Time News

In addition to press fears that the wire-tapping laws will amount to censorship, Italy’s journalists will be well aware of the recent resignation of Maria Luisa Busi, an anchor from prime time RAI 1 news programme TG1.  In her resignation letter, Busi insinuated that editorial manipulation had become so invasive that the TG1 news programme risked losing its credibility.

Many suspect that the RAI 1 news programmes only present news which has been ‘sanitised’ by pro-Berlusconi staff.  There has already been one case of dubious reporting concerning the Berlusconi-Mills bribery trial.  The TG1 news stated Mills had been acquitted, which was wrong.  The case against Mills had been brought to an end by time barring, which is not the same as an aquittal.  Busi also commented on the amount of trashy news TG1 has been showing.  She has a point, some of the odd TG1 stories runs have left both my Italian other half and myself distinctly puzzled as to their place on a prime time flagship news programme.

Busi’s leaving does not bode well for press freedom in Italy, nor, indeed, do the proposed wire-tapping rules.  There is, though, a chance that the effects of the new law will be halted shortly after coming into effect.

A Challenge is Possible

Even if the draft law does end up becoming actual law, there is the possibility that its constitutionality may be challenged – all it takes is for one of Italy’s judiciary to protest that the law is not in the interests of Italy for it to be called in for review by Italy’s constitutional court.  You can be sure that Berlusconi’s minions will be working overtime to ensure that the wording of the new wire-tapping legislation will be such that it cannot be declared unconstitutional.  Whether this is possible, remains to be seen.

See How Laws Become Laws in Italy for more on how laws come about, and how they can be challenged.

A Perceptive Cartoon

The Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera ran a clever cartoon on its front page last week.  In it there was Berlusconi on his mobile phone; in the speech bubbles were the words: “The wire-tapping legislation has passed?”, “Great, then we can talk.”  This well-observed cartoon leaves one under few allusions as to the real reason why the scandal-racked Berlusconi government is pushing so hard for the new anti-wire tapping laws.

Like the weather in Italy at the moment, things are hotting up on the wire-tapping front.  Heck knows what people from other lands make of what Italy is getting up to at the moment, or if they even care.

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