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Opinion: Italian Journalists Muzzle Their Criticisms

Press freedom in Italy is a complicated topic, with most Italian journalists practicing self-censorship. Those who dare to criticize often come under enormous pressure, says Milan-based journalist Kirstin Hausen.

Opinion

Television host Fabio Fazio knew what he was getting into when he invited journalist Marco Travaglio to be a guest on his show. Travaglio doesn't mince words, especially when it comes to criticizing Italian politicians. Over the years, Travaglio has gained the reputation of being Italy's most outspoken journalist.

On Fazio's show, he spoke openly about a topic that everyone more or less knew about, but which hadn't been openly discussed: the past mafia connections of current Senate President Renato Schifani.

The fact that Travaglio dared to speak openly about the subject caused a furor in Italy, with Schifani threatening to sue for slander, a common weapon used against outspoken journalists in Italy.

Many journalists steer clear of criticism

Even during the live television interview, host Fabio Fazio distanced himself from the accusations. He looked into the camera, an embarrassed expression on his face, and apologized to newly re-elected premier and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi is not a fan of airing such uncomfortable truths about his party supporters, yet politicians from other parties also have taken to ranting daily in talk shows and newspapers on the topic.

The real scandal has been completely pushed to the background: namely that the newly elected Senate president had mafia ties. Yet it was Travaglio who was denounced for openly discussing the matter.

Politicians vs. journalists

The state television broadcaster RAI, which aired the live discussion with Marco Travaglio, has publicly apologized to Schifani. The ruling parties welcomed the apology as did Giovanna Meladri, the communication director for the opposition. No one from opposition leader Walter Vetroni's party defended Travaglio. But this doesn't bother Travaglio. He stands by his reporting.

"I am a journalist and I don't care what politicians say about me," Travaglio said. "Journalists have to tell people the truth and that is what I have done."

Travaglio understands his journalistic responsibilities and he has a work ethic that many Italian journalists seem to have lost long ago. Travaglio said he sees it as a tragedy that Italian newspapers only write about what the television news reported on the day before. Politicians then pick up on these reports and react if they don't like what they see or hear.

Politicians stand ready to "muzzle journalists," Travaglio said. Journalists know it and "restrain themselves accordingly."

Italian public largely apathetic

For certain topics, censorship isn't even necessary as journalists practice self-censorship to avoid trouble. Plus, there's no clamor for the type of investigative reporting done by Travaglio. Many Italians are simply not interested in knowing about the underhanded dealings of the political class. Writer Nanni Ballestrini calls it a "weak dictatorship."

Italians are complicit in the set-up, Ballestrini said.

In fact, there's grudging admiration of a clever politician, such as Berlusconi, who can hold on to power even while under investigation.

But that doesn't mean Berlusconi wants his legal maneuverings spoken about in the media. At his own television channels, a call is all it takes to spike critical news reports.

At the state television station RAI the influence is less direct, but nevertheless noticeable. In Italy the ruling parties decide the top positions at the television station, which means they can put their cronies in charge. The new government will decide on how to fill these posts very soon.

Kirstin Hausen is based in Milan, Italy (th)

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