Berlusconi’s gag law is no laughing matter
While the Italian prime minister's crude jokes are a source of amusement abroad, at home there are increasing fears over proposed new media restrictions. Giulio D'Eramo reports
07 Oct 11

While the Italian prime minister’s crude jokes are a source of amusement abroad, at home there are increasing fears over proposed new media restrictions. Giulio D’Eramo reports

The approval of Italy’s so-called “gag law” in Italy is getting nearer, two years after it was initially proposed by the present government, and four years after a similar law was proposed by the opposition.

Following the latest series of phone-taps legally acquired by the press as evidence in some of the trials involving either the prime minister or his good friends, the new law would require the judiciary to only disclose phone-taps that are considered to be directly relevant to the case.

Even the famous anti-mafia magistrate Ilda Bocassini, who has been involved in some of the trials against the prime minister and was especially targeted Berlusconi’s campaign against “communist judges,” believes that this new measure would be fair.

In a recent interview to the Corriere della Sera, Bocassini stressed that she was outraged by the publication of phone-taps, claiming it was completely irrelevant to the ongoing trials. She was not only referring to the famous private remarks about German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but also to much of the published material.

Of course there are a lot of other phone-tap stories depicting a depressing picture of the excess involved in the life of a powerful and rich man like Berlusconi, which are definitely still in the public interest, as they paint an impressive fresco of widespread nepotism and recommendations, in both the private and the public sector.

But the story is not so simple. Just as Berlusconi’s aim is to protect himself, the same is true of his allies and even a sizeable portion of his opposition. Phone-taps are among the few tools with which the press, and therefore the public, can hold their representatives accountable. A complete lack of transparency has characterised post-war Italy for historical and cultural reasons, not least because we do not possess an equivalent word for “accountability”.

A serious lack of investigative journalism has probably been compensated for by the easy scoops gained from material gathered by the judiciary. This consideration has to be remembered when we observe the firm stance against the law taken by journalists all over the political spectrum.

That being said, this law does more than request the judiciary to double check the information they make available to the public. It allows the executive to shut down web pages, bypassing the judiciary power in case of defamation; it forces newspapers to rectify what they wrote within 48 hours at the request of the person “offended” by the article;  it includes heavy fines for newspapers that publish material leaked from the judiciary, and it will probably include prison sentences for guilty journalists.

All of this despite the fact that we already have strong libel laws.

Moreover, these new restrictive measures are intended to be valid not only for newspapers but for any website or blog. This was the reason for Wikipedia’s “strike”, which ended today.

In a country where everybody is enduring heavy austerity measures due to the never ending mismanagement of public money – it is hard to accept a measure intended to make the political class even less accountable.

The government has announced, then retracted, that it will pass the law with a vote of confidence. If so, the law will pass, because none of Berlusconi’s allies want to let him down, scared of what will happen to them without the direct backing of his mighty media empire.

We can just hope, that the government will, in the end decide not to go ahead due to the extreme aversion of both the journalists and the civil society. If that is the case, a lot of time will have been wasted, time that could have been used to tackle some of the economic and social problems that affect our nation.