The deputy prime minister called public newspapers "propaganda to defend the interests of a narrow elite." Italy's president issued a stern defense of press freedom in response.
Italian President Sergio Matarella issued a firm defense of press freedom over the weekend, after populist Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio threatened to cut public funds for newspapers.
Di Maio wrote on Facebook that he believed journalists were "polluting public debate."
Di Maio's anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) party is ostensibly left-leaning, but it rules in a coalition with the far-right populist Lega (League) party, and Di Maio has expressed a number of arch-conservative opinions, including advocating for hard-line immigration policies.
According to Di Maio, the newspapers that receive some public funding are "polluting public debate, and the worst thing is that they are doing it with public money."
Di Maio said that he was preparing a draft bill to stop money from state coffers going to print media. The deputy PM also maintained that by receiving public funds and gaining money from advertising, newspapers were unfairly making "double" the money at the citizens' expense.
"This is not journalism," he wrote. "It is just propaganda to defend the interests of a narrow elite…it won't be like that anymore. Our country needs free information and impartial publishers."
Italy's other deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini of the League, also recently called press freedom "something subjective."
Populists prefer social media
Without mentioning Di Maio or Salvini by name, President Matarella told Italy's prestigious La Repubblica newspaper on Saturday that "freedom of the press is fundamental to democracy."
Although the Italian president is a ceremonial head of state, Matarella has come to be a well-respected symbol of continuity during a period of political upheaval.
"A credible press, free of from the constraints of public and private powers…is an important tool of democracy," Matarella said.
Italian analysts have suggested that the populists prefer social media, where there is much less regulating of what is factual and what isn't.
Indeed, Di Maio recently slammed a new EU law that allows news outlets more power over behemoths like Facebook, calling it a "disgrace."