Italy and the free press
Muzzling the messengers
Oct 1st 2009 | ROME
From The Economist print edition
The first of three stories on the media and governments is on worrisome Italy
ON OCTOBER 3rd a demonstration will be held in Rome to defend media freedom—not in a remote dictatorship, but in Italy itself. Journalists who have called the protest have good reason to worry. In Freedom House’s 2009 survey of media independence, Italy was downgraded to “partly free” and placed 73rd in a list of 195 countries (only just above Bulgaria). In this respect, at least, Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy is distancing itself from western Europe and becoming more like weaker democracies farther east.
The Rome demonstration was called to protest over writs issued by the prime minister against two left-leaning newspapers. Mr Berlusconi is demanding damages of €1m ($1.5m) from La Repubblica for insisting on answers to ten questions about his private life. And he wants €2m from L’Unita (plus €200,000 apiece from five named journalists) for its articles, including one saying he abused his control of the media. L’Unita might close if it loses.
Mr Berlusconi’s writs seem to be part of a drive to flush out the few remaining rebel enclaves in the Italian media. His reply to talk of a conflict between his media interests and his political role has long been that he is still subject to plenty of criticism. Yes, he controls three of Italy’s seven main terrestrial television channels; another three, operated by the state-owned RAI, answer to a parliament dominated by his supporters; and he or his family own a leading daily, Il Giornale, plus a weekly news magazine and the country’s biggest publishing house. But of Italy’s main dailies, La Repubblica is firmly hostile, whereas Corriere della Sera and La Stampa are intermittently critical. The third RAI channel is run by the centre-left, and RAI’s radio network often provided unfavourable coverage. Even the evening news bulletin of Mr Berlusconi’s flagship channel, Canale 5, has run stories that embarrass him.
Since Mr Berlusconi returned to power last year, however, much has changed. Enrico Mentana, the news anchor long seen as a guarantor of Canale 5’s independence, walked out in April 2008, saying that he no longer felt “at home in a group that seems like an electoral [campaign] committee”. Journalists close to Mr Berlusconi have been appointed to edit RAI’s radio news and the bulletins of its first channel. And RAI has withdrawn legal support from its only real investigative programme.
Notwithstanding such efforts to appease the government, Mr Berlusconi’s allies have just launched an unprecedented assault on RAI, after one of its current-affairs programmes gave airtime to a woman who claims to have been paid to spend the night with the prime minister. Up to now, RAI has been seen as answerable only to a parliamentary committee. But on September 26th the government demanded that its most senior executives attend a meeting to “verify the impartiality” of the programme. A day later, Il Giornale and another newspaper close to the prime minister appealed to readers to stop paying the licence fees on which RAI depends for almost half its income.
Not since Mussolini’s time has an Italian government’s interference with the media been more blatant or alarming. Journalists, and other Italians, have every reason to protest.
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