Italian right-wing newspaper Libero, pictured above, was one of the few major newspapers not to strike last Friday in protest of a bill in the Italian Parliament concerning police wiretaps. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Giovanni Dall'Orto)
We don’t normally address questions of media policy abroad on this blog, but the situation in Italy seems worthy of highlighting.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been increasingly critical of the media, recently giving public voice to a cause that is apparently very close to his heart: “Italian citizens, please go on strike. Stop buying newspapers for a while. They only tell lies. They totally disinform. They give an upside down view of reality.”
He got a strike, but not the one that he intended.
The main Italian union of journalists, Federazione della Stampa Italiana (FNSI), exercised the well-known Italian right to strike last week, calling for a day without news on Friday to protest a “gag law” recently proposed by Berlusconi and already approved by the Italian Senate. The bill places extensive limits on police wiretaps and on the ability of the press to present material from those wiretaps to the public. Italian journalists and allies across Europe, including the International Federation of Journalists and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, have asserted that the bill would deal a crushing blow to Italian investigative journalism on matters of the public interest. Frank La Rue, human rights expert and United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, has also ventured into the fray the week by issuing a statement on the negative implications of the bill.
Now, anything perceived as government constraints on a free press raises immediate red flags—especially a law that would make it illegal for journalists to publish transcripts of any wiretaps, on penalty of fine or even jail time. (In fact, a significant percentage of the Italian media is concentrated in the hands of Berlusconi or his family. Though the editor of the newspaper signed on to a joint statement of newspaper editors against the bill, one of the few major newspapers not to strike was Il Giornale, which is owned by Berlusconi’s brother. The only other national daily paper not to strike was the pro-government Libero.) But there are some aspects of this issue that have been largely ignored in the rush to condemn Berlusconi’s campaign against the press.
For example, the self-contradiction in this situation is a little unnerving. The proposed law has managed to offend both sides of the aisle: the pro-law-and-order types who want to prosecute mafiosi and terrorists and the pro-freedom-of-speech types who want a free press uninhibited by government intrusion. Achieving such controversy is no easy feat.
It is important to draw attention to a distinction that is being overlooked, that of the line between a police investigation and investigative journalism. The bill’s purpose is two-fold: stopping journalists from publishing wiretap transcripts and curbing the wiretaps in the first place. To accomplish the latter, the bill calls for stricter oversight of wiretaps as part of police investigations by requiring, among other things, more frequent renewals of eavesdropping warrants.
As every Law and Order addict knows, wiretaps are usually supported by government investigators, not free speech advocates. Yet the situation in Italy is now such that journalists feel they need to allow some sacrifices of private citizens’ privacy in order to be the watchdog for government transparency and be able to report on issues of public interest, namely the rampant corruption throughout government circles. On one hand, the prime minister could truly be trying to protect the privacy of unsuspecting Italian citizens. (This interpretation, admittedly, seems somewhat naïve.) On the other hand, Berlusconi and his political cohort have given the world plenty of reasons to question their intentions in the course of multiple recent inquiries into corruption scandals.
In summary, this is a prime example of a growing problem in public media: finding a way to reconcile the public’s desire for both personal privacy and increased government transparency, as well as a society built on the freedom of expression. There are several examples of this tension made manifest in modern American society, from the privacy of social media users (the ongoing debate over Facebook’s ever-changing privacy settings) to concerns over the privacy of the consumer (including a call for the Federal Trade Commission to produce a national privacy rights plan) to issues of government transparency (the campaign finance DISCLOSE Act, which calls for new disclosure requirements that pose new privacy questions). In Italy, the debate is currently centered on the third category, and perhaps we can get some help answering our own domestic questions by following these events across the Atlantic.
When journalists from most Italian newspaper and broadcast outlets boycotted work on Thursday, June 8—ironically creating a situation in which the only news outlets putting out content on Friday were the pro-Berlusconi newspapers, intentionally mothballing a free press in order to support a free press—they raised global awareness of the clear dangers of governments limiting the diffusion of relevant data, while simultaneously surrendering the inherent privacy rights of citizens that we often take for granted in the U.S. On June 29, when the Italian lower house is scheduled to begin debate on this issue, we will see just how much privacy or transparency Italians are willing to compromise.