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Freedom of Expression: the Italian Anomaly

May 5, 2011

Unpopular ideas can be silenced
and inconvenient facts kept dark,
without the need for any official ban.
(George Orwell, Animal Farm, 1943)

On October 3, 2009, thousands of people gathered in Piazza del Popolo in Rome to support their right to free information in what Reporters without Borders Secretary-General Jean-François Julliard called “the biggest demonstration in defense of press freedom ever held in the world.” If this may seem a hyperbolic statement, let’s just stick to the facts: the whole square and its surrounding streets in the center of Rome were packed with people, an estimated 300,000 according to Il Sole 24 Ore. The demonstration had a critical role in drawing international attention to the lack of press freedom in Italy.  

The fact that the Federazione Nazionale della Stampa decided to organize such a demonstration and that so many people decided to attend suggests that something is really going on in Italy. It means that there is a recognized threat to Article 21of the Italian Constitution, which reads: “Tutti hanno diritto di manifestare liberamente il proprio pensiero con la parola, lo scritto e ogni altro mezzo di diffusione. La stampa non può essere soggetta ad autorizzazioni o censure.” Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization based in Washington DC, has downgraded Italy to “partly free” country, ranking it 72nd along with Benin, Hong Kong and India.[3]

There are several reasons why Italy could be considered an “anomaly” compared to the rest of the Western world with regard to press freedom. The most evident and striking fact that makes Italy unique in Europe is Silvio Berlusconi’s conflict of interest. By combining the influence of his media empire and the ruling power of his public office, Berlusconi is the most powerful man in Italy, but also the most dangerous. As Soria Blatmann acknowledges in her report, Berlusconi owns 84.7% of Fininvest, a major holding company created in 1973; 48.2% of Mediaset, whose vice-president is Berlusconi’s son Piersilvio, grouping three TV stations – Canale 5, Italia 1 and Rete Quattro – and the powerful advertising agency Publitalia. His brother Paolo Berlusconi owns Il Giornale, a very widely known newspaper. His wife Veronica Lario owns 49% of Il Foglio. Silvio Berlusconi also owns 48% of the Mondadori group, whose president is his daughter Marina Berlusconi, controlling “31% of the publishing industry and 45% of the magazine market.”

Berlusconi is not the only media mogul in Europe – Rupert Murdoch is his equivalent in the United Kingdom, as well as in Australia and the United States, and is now his major rival in Italy. But Berlusconi’s uniqueness lays in the fact that he is also Italy’s head of government. There is no way to solve this conflict of interest unless Berlusconi either resigns from office or abandons his media empire. How can the Italian press be 100 percent free if such an important figure controls it? How can the media be the watchdog of the government if the government directly influences the media? As journalist Marco Travaglio says, in Italy journalism is rather “the company dog” of power.[1]

One of the major threats to freedom of expression in Italy comes from the strong ties between journalism and politics. Unfortunately, this is not only true for Berlusconi and his huge media empire, it is the problem of every government, either Left or Right, coming to power. RAI, Italy’s state-owned TV broadcaster, in fact, is heavily politicized, due to the so-called policy of “lottizzazione.” According to this principle, each RAI channel is given to a major political current and the members of RAI’s board of governors come from different political parties. According to the logic of the anomalous Italian system, the “lottizzazione” would assure pluralism within the public media service. But how independent can the service of RAI journalists and their directors be if they are directly dependent on the government and influenced by political parties? In her report, Blatmann notes that “Italy is the only European country to have three public service TV channels.” And these three channels, RAI 1, RAI 2 and RAI 3, are extremely influential and popular. Press freedom cannot be protected if the Prime Minister controls “up to 90 percent of the country’s broadcast media.”[2]

In fact, censorship has occurred several times lately. The most famous and alarming example is the so-called Editto Bulgaro, year 2002. During his official visit to Sofia, Berlusconi accused some RAI journalists of attacking him by using the public television in a criminal way. “I think,” Berlusconi declared in Sofia, “It is the duty of RAI’s new management to prevent that from happening again.”[3] Not by chance, the programs of the three journalists named by Berlusconi in his speech, Enzo Biagi, Michele Santoro and Daniele Luttazzi, were taken off the air.

What had Biagi, Santoro and Luttazzi done? Close to the parliamentary elections of 2001, when Berlusconi was one of the candidates, in his program Il Fatto on RAI 1, Enzo Biagi invited the left-wing comedian Roberto Benigni, who did a satire of Berlusconi. His program was taken off the air in June 2002. Biagi was one of the historical figures of Italian journalism: he had announced the liberation from fascism on April 25, 1945, and he had been working for RAI for more than 40 years. Berlusconi replaced him with a member of his personal press office.[4]

Because of Biagi’s replacement, in a May 2002 special edition of his program Sciuscià, Michele Santoro dealt with the Biagi affair and Berlusconi’s accusations. Santoro’s program was suspended for four days and was dropped in the fall 2002 schedule. In Sabina Guzzanti’s documentary Viva Zapatero!, Santoro says that “for more than two years I tried to go back to work. I went to all the courts of the Republic, they said I was right. A magistrate asked for my reinstatement as a journalist…”[5] But nothing worked against Berlusconi.

Last but not least, in March 2001, Daniele Luttazzi invited Marco Traveglio to his RAI 2 program Satyricon to discuss Travaglio’s book The Smell of Money, which dealt with Berlusconi’s judicial problems. That was Luttazzi’s last episode. “After that episode with Marco Travaglio, we received four lawsuits,” Luttazzi recalls Viva Zapatero!, “One from Silvio Berlusconi for 4 billion euro, one from Forza Italia for 11 billions, one from Fininvest for 5 billions, one from Mediaset for other 5 billions.” As Ezio Mauro, director of La Repubblica, wrote in his editorial on October 3, 2009, “there is a problem of freedom of expression if journalists must think about their personal destiny whenever they switch on the computer to write an article that criticizes, even shyly, the Prime Minister.” This threat of receiving lawsuits worth billions of euro is a severe threat for many journalists, who then prefer to, or are forced to, keep quiet.

The problem of censorship also regards satire. Sabina Guzzanti is one of Italy’s best known satirists and comedians. In her documentary Viva Zapatero! (2005), she recounts all the vicissitudes she faced because of her satirical program Raiot (a pundit on the word “RAI” and the English word “riot”). After the first episode of Raiot was aired on RAI 3, the program was canceled because it was deemed vulgar, critical of the government and of Berlusconi, even though it gained 26 percent of the share.[6] According to the Mediaset lawyers, who sued RAI for billions of euro, satire “serves to humanize politicians and to loosen social tensions. Satire cannot shape public opinion.”[7] Mediaset later lost the court case because the judges of the court in Milan ruled that the accusation of defamation was not valid since Raiot was a satirical program and since all the facts that Guzzanti ridiculed were true. However, her show was not aired again.

In the documentary, Guzzanti talks with several French, German and English journalists and comedians who express their views of what freedom of speech is. All of them, from Rory Bremner to Karl Zero, from Marcelle Padovani to Udo Gumpel, agree that what is happening in Italy would be inconceivable in their home countries. Padovani admits that she finds it impossible to describe the Italian situation in France, because nothing like this exists there and she can’t find anything to compare it to. Bremner, a satirical actor in Great Britain, says that “in England, it is inconceivable that a satirircal program about government and about politics would be banned. It would be considered an abuse of the freedom of speech. It would be an abuse of power from the government.”[8] But in Italy, this is possible.

Article 11 of the European charter of fundamental rights states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. The freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected.” However, even though Italy is a member state and the EU charter is legally binding, on October 21, 2009, the European parliament rejected a resolution denouncing the lack of press freedom in Italy and dismissed it as a national matter. But can such an important principle be just a national matter? On December 1, 2009, the new Lisbon Treaty came into effect. Under this treaty, the EU charter of fundamental rights must be applied by every member state. Why then does the European Parliament fail to act? As Brevini says in her article in The Guardian, “Europe should stop considering democracy a strictly national issue and should act to protect Italy’s freedom of speech.”

Since 2005, when Guzzanti shot her documentary, the situation has not improved at all. Berlusconi is still Prime Minister and his personal interests are still the order of the day in the Italian parliament, where “ad personam laws” such as the Gasparri law are introduced and passed month after month. Censorship is still widely used in Italian media. A clear example is that of Videocracy (2009), the movie by Erik Gandini about the influence of commercial TV on Italian society. Both Mediaset and RAI refused to air the trailer of the movie for different reasons. Mediaset, as a commercial TV company, didn’t deem it right to publicize a movie that was against commercial television on its channels. RAI claimed that pluralism is most important and therefore, RAI couldn’t air the trailer of a movie considered “political” if there wasn’t another film showing opposite views.[9]

On July 9, 2010, newspapers decided to go on strike to protest against a bill that, if passed, would limit the possibility of wiretapping and severely restrict journalists’ freedom of reporting on cases of corruption or crime organization. For a whole day, no “left-wing” newspaper could be found in the newsstands. The day after the protest, Berlusconi attacked the newspapers that went on strike with these precise words: “Print journalism sides with the Left and is against the government in a prejudicial way. This print journalism misinforms the readers. Not only does it distort reality, but it rides roughshod over the citizens’ sacred right to privacy, advocating freedom of speech for itself as if it were an absolute right. But, in a democracy, there are no absolute rights, because each right is always limited by other rights, which are majorly and equally worthy of protection.”[10]

Freedom of speech is an unquestionable right. It was recognized as early as 1789 in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Article 11 of the revolutionary declaration stated that “free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious rights of man. Consequently, every citizen may speak, write and publish freely, although he may have to answer for the abuse of that liberty in the cases determined by the law.” The same right to free speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, written in 1971. Nonetheless, in 2010, a European country is witnessing an outrageous violation of freedom of speech.

I don’t believe there is little we can do about it. There is a lot to do. But other than protesting in the squares of Rome, closing up newspapers for a whole day, watching alternative shows such as Vieni Via Con Me, what can the Italian people do? Alone, we can’t fight against a corrupted political system that is way beyond our reach. One could say: “There is a way: don’t vote for Berlusconi!” My answer is: “How is that possible if more than 80% of Italians get their information from TV[11] and Berlusconi controls 90% of Italian television?”

[1] Marco Travaglio, La Scomparsa dei Fatti (Milan: Il Saggiatore, 2008).

[2] Freedom House, Freedom of the Press: Italy (2009), 10 Sept. 2009

[3] Silverio Novelli, “Parole Bulgare tra Berlusconi e Biagi,” Encyclopedia Treccani Online, 20 Oct. 2010

[4] Viva Zapatero! dir. Sabina Guzzanti, DVD, Lucky Red, 2005.

[5] Michele Santoro in Viva Zapatero! dir. Sabina Guzzanti, DVD, Lucky Red, 2005.

[6] Viva Zapatero! dir. Sabina Guzzanti, DVD, Lucky Red, 2005.

[7] Viva Zapatero! dir. Sabina Guzzanti, DVD, Lucky Red, 2005.

[8] Rory Bremner in Viva Zapatero! dir. Sabina Guzzanti, DVD, Lucky Red, 2005.

[9]    Maria Pia Fusco, “La Rai Rifiuta il Trailer di Videocracy,” La Repubblica, 27 Aug. 2009, 20 Oct. 2010 

[10]    “Berlusconi Attacks ‘Right-Wing’ Newspapers: Freedom of Speech is not an Absolute Right,” La Repubblica, 10 July 2010, 20 Oct. 2010

[11] “Gli Italiani e l’Informazione,” Demos&Pi, (25 October 2010)

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