Berlusconi’s phone-tap U-turn
The Italian government is to stall plans to ban intercept evidence from court cases. Giulio D'Eramo reports
21 Jul 10

Berlusconi - The PRESSident
The Italian government is to stall plans to ban intercept evidence from court cases. Giulio D’Eramo reports

The Italian government has proposed major changes to the highly criticised phone tapping bill (its so-called gag law). The move is seen as a victory for Gianfranco Fini, the Berlusconi allied president of the chamber of deputies, but it marks yet another chapter in the government’s damaging internal war.

The U-turn, which means phone-tap evidence will be usable in criminal cases, shows that a united press can influence the government, and testifies that the fourth estate in Italy is not dead, even if television is largely controlled by the government. In fact the changes take on board many of the suggestions made by both the national union of journalists and the judiciary. Berlusconi — at his lowest approval rating ever (39 per cent) — has expressed his discontent, saying that now “nothing changes. Citizens won’t be able to speak freely on the telephone”.

The new version of the bill lifts most of the restrictions that would have limited the ability of the judiciary to order phone-taps, and of journalists to publish information on matters of public interest. Instead of forbidding the publication of any kind of information before the start of a criminal trial — and that, in Italy, can take up to 5 years — a preliminary hearing would be held, in which all irrelevant parts of phone-taps and other information would be removed from the evidence and made secret. This would protect the press’s ability to report on matters of public interest.

Berlusconi describes Italy’s wiretap situation as unbearable, and he drew unfavourable comparisons with the UK’s more restrictive approach. But the essential lack of transparency in Italian public life means the comparison is unfair. For example: Italian MPs do not need to present any kind of receipts to claim the monthly €12,000 expenses they are entitled to. Basically an expenses scandal would not only go unreported, but it would not even be regarded as a potential wrongdoing.

Government accountability should come before the right of the powerful to protect their privacy. Only when transparency is enhanced, and therefore new forms of evidence will be available, should the government conceive of the restriction of the use of phone-taps.