Italian journalists speak out against wiretapping law

On 13 June, a draft law limiting journalists’ ability to provide the public with vital information was passed in the lower house of the Italian parliament and now awaits the senate’s approval. Unions representing lawyers, journalists and editors have all expressed their firm opposition, organising a series of events, including a conference last week and another planned for tomorrow in Rome, and promoting a petition to stop the law, which has 260,000 signatories –– and counting.

In recent years, the Italian press has published transcripts of private conversations obtained through wiretapping. Some of these transcripts were relevant to ongoing trials; others were not. Both exposed left and right-wing politicians alike to public anger and sometimes embarrassment. To gain popular support, the government is arguing that the exceptionally high number of tapped phone lines (estimated to be around 300,000) justifies their plan to fast-track the law through parliament. Two years ago, the Prodi government unsuccessfully tried to pass a similar law.

Among the restrictions outlined in the draft is a provision making it illegal for journalists and editors to publish information about a trial (on wiretaps or anything else) until the preliminary investigations are over, even if these documents are already in the public domain. Punishment can be up to 30 days in jail, plus a €10, 000 fine for journalists and €465,000 fine for editors. “This implies censorship of news that could be very relevant to most citizens. For example, under the new law, the press would not have been able to report on the Parmalat scandal for many years,” said Franco Siddi, general secretary of the Italian Press Federation (FNSI). Similar concerns were expressed by both the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the International Press Institute (IPI).

In addition, the new law will make it illegal to publish extracts from wiretaps not relevant to trials. For journalists, this could lead to the maximum sentence of three years in prison.

Under the new law, prosecutors will only be allowed to wiretap individuals for a maximum of 30 days. They can do so only if they have strong criminal evidence, and only when the maximum punishment for the alleged crime exceeds five years in prison. These evidence requirements are less strict when the alleged crime involves organised crime or terrorism. “Theoretically we can still perform investigations on criminal organisations such as the Mafia, but the five-year limit implies that we will not be allowed to wire-tap for typical Mafia crimes such as extortion,” said Giuseppe Cascini, secretary of the supreme court.

“It is a serious blow to everybody’s security and a great help for a lot of criminals,” said Giancarlo Caselli, head prosecutor in Turin. “If this law was already effective the arrests made [of activists allegedly trying to rebuild the Red Brigades] would not have been carried out,” said Olga D’antona, MP and widow of Massimo d’Antona, killed in the 1990s by the new Red Brigades.