Silvio Berlusconi’s government crumbled in November amid the country’s economic crisis, ending a tenure marked by manipulation and restriction of the press. As prime minister and media owner, Berlusconi owned or controlled all of Italy’s major national television channels, ensuring news coverage favorable to his administration. He worked methodically for three years to enact controversial legislation to prevent print and online media from publishing embarrassing information about alleged corruption in his government and his dalliances with young women. Even in the final days of his tenure, Berlusconi sought to revive a bill that would have limited the use of police wiretaps, penalized journalists for publishing the contents of wiretaps, and forced websites to publish “corrections” to information considered damaging to a person’s image within 48 hours of receiving a complaint. Parliament had already postponed action on the measure, termed Berlusconi’s “gag law,” in 2010. In Perugia, prosecutor Giuliano Mignini used Italy’s harsh defamation laws to intimidate journalists, authors, and media outlets--in Italy and the United States--that reported critically about his performance in two high-profile cases.
In October 2011, Wikipedia disabled its Italian website to protest the revival in parliament of a controversial bill that would, in part, order online media to publish corrections--within 48 hours of a lodged complaint and without the right to appeal--if the online material was deemed damaging to the plaintiff's image.
Through his media company, Mediaset, Berlusconi owned the commercial national television stations Canale 5, Italia 1, and Retequattro. Before resigning as prime minister, Berlusconi also controlled the public national television channels Rai 1, Rai 2, and Rai 3, part of the RAI broadcasting network. Mediaset and RAI together have dominated Italy's viewership and advertising market since the 1990s, which gave Berlusconi a virtual monopoly on the broadcast media landscape.
Most popular Italian media, according to the European Journalism Centre:
Print: National dailies Corriere della sera and La Repubblica were the leaders in circulation.
Television: Mediaset and RAI channels together attracted 90 percent of Italy's audience.
Radio: The divisions of RAI, Radio Uno, and Radio Due shared the top spots in terms of listenership.
Online: News websites with the highest number of visitors were the Italian version of MSN, Virgilio, Libero.
Perugia prosecutor Mignini has sued or threatened to sue several individuals and media outlets critical of his record. The threats, which have had a chilling effect on the press in Italy and the United States, stemmed from coverage of Mignini’s performance in two high-profile murder investigations--the Monster of Florence case and the November 2007 slaying of British exchange student Meredith Kercher.
A prosecutor’s defamation complaints:
February 2009: Mignini told the BBC he had filed a defamation claim against the U.S. weekly West Seattle Herald concerning an article critical of the prosecution in the Kercher case. Mignini was prosecuting a Seattle woman, Amanda Knox.
August 2009: After a critical comment by U.S. writer Joe Cottonwood was published in the Italian daily Il Giornale, Mignini threatened a criminal defamation lawsuit. Cottonwood said he was deterred from traveling to Italy after the threat.
September 2010: Gianfranco Sulas, an investigative reporter with the newsmagazine Oggi, received notice that Mignini had started legal action over coverage of the prosecutor’s record.
July and September 2010: Oggi Editor Umberto Brindani received two “notices of investigation” in relation to coverage of the Monster of Florence case.
February 2011: A Florentine judge ordered the closure of the English-language blog Perugia Shock, which published commentary critical of the Kercher investigation. The order stemmed from Mignini’s lawsuit for “defamation, carried out by means of a website.” The blog was shuttered.
March 2011: A Florentine court found veteran journalist Mario Spezi guilty of offending Mignini’s “honor and prestige” in a public statement. Spezi was ordered to serve 15 days in prison or to pay 570 euros (US$826). Spezi opted to pay.
Squadro Mobile--the local police unit in charge of the Kercher murder investigation--harassed, assaulted, and detained Frank Sfarzo in retaliation for critical reporting and commentary on his blog, Perugia Shock. The blog was later ordered removed.
Timeline in Sfarzo case:
November 2007: Sfarzo created Perugia Shock to report on the Kercher case.
October 28, 2008: Outside a Perugia court, Squadra Mobile officers struck Sfarzo and said his blog had angered them.
December 2008: Squadra Mobile continued to harass Sfarzo throughout the Kercher trial, preventing him from entering the court, seizing his cell phone and going through his contacts and text messages, and mouthing insults at him from across the courtroom.
September 28, 2010: Five Squadra Mobile officers forcibly entered Sfarzo’s apartment without a warrant, striking and handcuffing the journalist. They brought him to a city hospital where they tried to have him declared mentally incompetent, then kept him in custody overnight without access to a lawyer or his family.
September 29, 2010: Squadra Mobile brought Sfarzo before a local judge, who indicted the journalist on several criminal charges, including “using violence and threats to resist public officials” and “injuring an officer.”
May 10, 2011: Google took down Perugia Shock after a Florentine judge issued an order for its closure.
Compared with other members of the European Union, Italians have been slower to embrace new media and the Internet, according to research by the International Telecommunication Union, or ITU.
Netherlands: 90.7 percent
Do you believe the free flow of information must be protected? Sign the #RightToReport petition and demand that President Obama immediately:
1. Issue a presidential policy directive prohibiting the hacking and surveillance of journalists and media organizations.
2. Limit aggressive prosecutions that ensnare journalists and intimidate whistleblowers.
3. Prevent the harassment of journalists at the U.S. border.
Or click here to see the full petition, and join leading journalists like Christiane Amanpour, The Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger, Editor of the AP Kathleen Carroll, and Arianna Huffington in signing on.