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Press freedom in Italy: Six key things to know

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Press freedom in Italy: Six key things to know
Front pages of Italian newspapers last week. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
11:21 CEST+02:00
Freedom of press has been enshrined in Italian law for over 150 years, but it's not something we should take for granted. On World Press Freedom Day, The Local takes a look at some of the main issues affecting freedom of the media in Italy.

1. Italy has one of Europe's lowest press freedom rankings

... But it's getting better. In Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index, published last week, Italy soared 25 places compared to last year, but still lags behind its European neighbours, ranked 52nd in the world. 

Freedom of press was first established in Italy after its unification in 1861, and after the fall of Benito Mussolini's fascist regime in the 1940s, this law was updated. The recent fascist past means many Italians are wary of any form of control or censorship over the media.

Yet Reporters Without Borders said press freedom was a "noticeable problem" in the country, citing threats from organized crime groups and pressure from politicians as two of the biggest issues.

2. Mafia intimidation

The mafia is one of the biggest threats to free media in Italy. Particularly in the south of the country, reporters have fallen victim to arson attacks, criminal damage to property, death threats and violence.

In 2014, Reporters Without Borders described violence towards journalists as “endemic in Italy and increasing steadily”, and today, six journalists live with round-the-clock police protection. Perhaps the most famous is Roberto Saviano, whose book Gomorrah examined the grip of the Camorra mafia group on Naples.

READ MORE: Gomorrah writer Saviano tells mafia: You did not succeed

3. The main political parties have strong influence over media outlets

Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who leads the Forza Italia party, is a media tycoon who in 2012 controlled around 90 percent of Italian broadcast media outlets, according to estimates from the European Federation of Journalists. He remains the controlling shareholder of Italy's largest commercial broadcaster, Mediaset.

Meanwhile, Carlo de Benedetti, who owns the Espresso group which publishes the country's second most widely read newspaper, La Repubblica, has strong links to Italy's centre-left Democratic Party. And some executives at Rai, Italy's national broadcaster, are politically appointed. 

In fact, most media outlets receive state funding or have longstanding ties to political parties, and what's more, the board of regulatory body AGCOM is appointed by parliament.

4. And newer parties have a strict approach to the media

In its 2016 press freedom rankings, Reporters Without Borders singled out the Five Star Movement's Beppe Grillo, who is notoriously critical of Italy's mainstream press, for "publicly outing" journalists he disagreed with on his blog. Grillo, a former comedian, has long accused Italian mainstream media of creating fake news in order to damage his party and is critical of the most prominent broadcasters and newspapers.

Five Star members are banned from appearing on talk shows and Grillo rarely speaks to the media, preferring to communicate via his blog, which is one of the most read in the world. But Grillo hit back at the criticism, highlighting the ties between Italy's other political parties and its media outlets. 

5. Journalists can face harsh sentences for defamation

Some of Italy's harsh rules punishing defamation were actually introduced under Mussolini's regime. Fines can reach up to 20,000 euros and journalists found guilty can even face prison terms. 

The Vatileaks trials last year provoked outrage among campaigners for press freedom, who argued that the Vatican City was attacking the media. The acquittal of two journalists in that case - as well as several others in 2016 - was seen as a victory for freedom of the media, and cited by Reporters Without Borders as one of the reasons Italy rose in the latest freedom rankings. Court rulings over the past few years have emphasized that prison terms should only be handed out in extreme circumstances.

6. Freedom of Information

Until recently, journalists wishing to access information had to rely on various vague provisions under several different laws, as there was no universal Freedom of Information Act. The right to access administrative documents was introduced in 1990, but required a "legal interest", meaning it was often difficult for journalists to get information needed for investigative reporting.

However, when Matteo Renzi came to power in 2014, he announced plans to introduce a dedicated law, and the Freedom of Information Act came into force in December last year. Renzi's administration also declassified some documents such as those relating to terrorist attacks, as well as creating a portal detailing where and how public funds were spent.

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