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Europe

Italians little concerned at limits to press freedom

Italian journalists have to face both official and private pressure as they try to do their job. Most Italians don't seem to care.

A photo reproduction of six amongst the major Italian newspapers

Many Italian media are scarcely independent

Late last year, an unusual and immensely popular four-part television show called "Vieni via con me" ("Come away with me") aired on Italy's state-run RAI TV.

It was unusual for several reasons, including the fact that it even made it on air. Fabio Fazio and anti-mafia writer Roberto Saviano, who co-hosted the show, recounted a long internal battle with politically appointed RAI executives to win the right to the four episodes.

But another anomalous aspect of the show was its format. Rather than the usual acrimonious debate of Italian political talk shows, where participants yell and insult each other, hosts Fazio and Saviano invited guests simply to read lists of events, people or reflections that had meaning for them.

One of those invited was Milena Gabanelli, host of the top Italian investigative news show Report, which regularly exposes the misuse of public funds and political and corporate corruption. Gabanelli stood on stage and read a tally few Italian TV viewers before had heard: the lawsuits, with requested damages, currently launched against Report.

Total: 23. Total damage requested: 251 million euros.

Lawsuits designed to intimidate

Italian author and journalist Roberto Saviano

Saviano had to fight for the RAI TV special

"Journalists can do a lot of damage, they can destroy lives and companies," host Gabanelli said. "That's why we try to be very careful and work in good faith. … But being allowed to launch lawsuits that tie journalists' hands for between three and 10 years [the length of court cases in Italy] based on nothing should also not be permitted."

Gabanelli said many of the lawsuits against Report accuse the show of reporting things that it never actually reported. Complainants also request millions of euros in damages against Report for merely having cited available facts. While dozens of lawsuits have been launched against Report since the show first aired 14 years ago, Report has lost just one, for 30,000 euros, which is now in appeal.

"It's clear these are lawsuits to stop you from investigating certain subjects," Gabanelli said. "They're designed to intimidate."

Not surprising, one of the complainants in the 23 lawsuits against Report is Italy's most powerful man, media magnate and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi owns Italy's three major private television stations, and as prime minister, has strong influence over the three state-run RAI television stations.

Lawsuits not the only weapon

The RAI logo

RAI is strongly influenced by the Italian government

But intimidatory lawsuits are not the only tool used to silence investigative journalists. Other long-time Italian television hosts, such as Michele Santoro, host of the weekly news show Anno Zero, describe a hostile environment within the state television where the threat of sanction and suspension is ever present. Santoro was banished from Italian television during Silvio Berlusconi's first mandate and his current show was recently suspended when a RAI television board found it biased.

A report by the International Press Institute (IPI) published in late December 2010 backs up journalists' claims, finding that conflicts of interest created by Berlusconi's role as head of state and media owner have "encouraged a habit of political interference in media content."

The IPI also found worrisome the combination of Berlusconi's control over television with the fact that, for the overwhelming majority of Italians, television is the sole source of news information.

Few independent newspapers

Lack of freedom of the press in television isn't the only cause for concern in Italy. The IPI report also found that the economic structure of the newspaper industry allows business and political interests to influence news reports.

Most newspapers in Italy receive state funding and have historical links to political parties; they can make little claim to unbiased reporting.

"A great part of our papers belong to Berlusconi. The other part is against Berlusconi, but they work for someone else," said media blogger Alessio Jacona. "As a reader, I don't feel I'm well informed or that the newspapers I'm reading are doing all they should do."

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi

Berlusconi has a firm grip on Italy's media

Italians have lost interest

Despite a few protests in 2009 and the dogged crusade of a small group of journalists and bloggers, lack of freedom of the press doesn't seem to concern most Italians.

Long-time Italian commentator and editor of the Rome-based magazine The American, Christopher Winner, says that, when Berlusconi's conflict of interest as owner of mass media and political leader became clear in the early '90s, the opposition failed to force Berlusconi to relinquish his control.

"Italians are generally cynical and skeptical and when somebody is able to resist for as along as Berlusconi has been able to, the issue ultimately passes."

Author: Megan Williams, Rome
Editor: Michael Lawton

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