Berlusconi finds a wiretap bill more difficult to pass than expected. (AP/Riccardo De Luca)
Berlusconi finds a wiretap bill more difficult to pass than expected. (AP/Riccardo De Luca)

In Italy, vote postponed on Berlusconi’s ‘gag law’

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is leaving for vacation in a very bad mood. On Thursday, the House of Deputies, although dominated by Berlusconi’s center-right coalition, decided to postpone until September its vote on a wiretap bill that had been considered a bellwether by a government wracked by internecine wars and confronted with ominous poll predictions.

Berlusconi’s phone-tapping initiative was aimed at sharply limiting the use of wiretaps issued by magistrates in the context of police investigations and at harshly penalizing journalists who would publicize the contents of these recordings.

Presented by its sponsors as a tool to protect privacy, the bill was denounced as an attempt by the prime minister to protect himself and his political friends from accusations of corruption, mafia connections, and “loose morality.” As Rachel Donadio of The New York Times put it, “in recent months Italians have learned through leaked wiretaps about Monica, a Brazilian masseuse hired by Guido Bertolaso, the head of the Civil Protection Agency, who is under investigation for corruption” and about “Angelo Balducci, a former member of the board of Italy’s public works department” who was caught in a wiretapped conversation “asking a singer in a Vatican choir about a potential date.”

Among many other contentious clauses, like the requirement “for all those responsible for information websites” to issue corrections within 48 hours to any complaint regarding content, the bill would have limited police wiretaps to two months for most criminal investigations. To the ire of Italian journalists, it would also have forbidden the publication of any kind of information obtained through leaked phone-tapping before the start of a criminal trial, a process that in the long-winding ways of Italian justice may take up to five years.

Silvio Berlusconi was confident that his appeal to the grand principles of the sanctity of private life, his control over most of Italy’s audiovisual media, both private and public, and his parliamentary majority would allow him to push the bill through Congress.

Although the bill was passed in the Italian senate on June 10, it hit unexpectedly bumpy roads everywhere else. Most of the press rebelled against the legge bavaglio (gag law), enlisting even media institutions owned by Il Cavagliere. On July 9, most newspaper, radio and TV journalists went on a 24-hour strike, shutting down news around the country to protest the law.

The judiciary and the police also reacted angrily, insisting that the proposed law would, in the words of Antonio Ingroia, a famous anti-mafia attorney in Palermo, “strike a lethal blow to inquiries on corruption, organized crime and its political collusion.”

The “no” campaign became international when Frank La Rue, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of information and expression, called on the Italian government to “abolish or revise” the bill, and the media freedom representative of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe “urged Italy to amend the bill.”

In addition, the European Union committed itself to reviewing the measure and U.S. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Beuer, according to The New York Times, “expressed concern about the bill’s impact on the longstanding collaboration between the American and Italian authorities in organized crime and counterterrorism investigations.

Finally the “gag law” gave an argument to Gianfranco Fini, Berlusconi’s main rival in his ruling coalition, The People of Liberty. Referring to the need to combat corruption, the president of the House of Deputies expressed his opposition to the bill and actively maneuvered to have it amended or postponed. This is exactly what happened: The law was watered down on July 22, and then action was postponed entirely on Thursday. The air is so poisoned within the coalition that some pundits predict early elections that might have dire consequences for Berlusconi’s party.

Many Italian journalists concede that violations of privacy are at times a real issue in Italy. On June 10, The Economist underlined that aspect by referring to “the routine trampling on the rights of suspects and others caught up in investigations … often creating a presumption of guilt that is difficult to reverse.”

Most journalists, however, congratulate themselves on the impact of their campaign. They see it as a first victory in the midst of an Italian media scene that has been excessively dominated by Berlusconi’s “private empire” and by his crude intervention in the public service broadcasting system.

As important, the rebellion against the bill also turned what might have been denounced as a “corporatist reaction”—the protection of a journalistic “peeping” privilege—into an issue for the whole Italian society: the press as a watchdog defending its freedom to report in order to expose the abuses of power.

At the international level this Italian controversy also reminds everyone that an attack against press freedom in a specific country has an impact outside of its borders, not only because it reduces access to essential information in transnational criminal investigations, but also because it tends to establish a precedent that may inspire other governments facing accusations of corruption or bad governance.

(Reporting from Brussels)