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Press freedom in Italy: Key things to know

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Press freedom in Italy: Key things to know
Front pages of Italian newspapers calling for the defense of press freedom. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
13:04 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' 2018 World Press Freedom Index, Italy climbed six places compared to the year before, but still lags behind its European neighbours, ranked 46th 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 that violence against journalists in Italy was "alarming and keeps growing". The watchdog points to threats made against reporters by organized crime groups, anarchists and fundamentalists.

READ ALSO: Italian newspaper offices blockaded by far-right Forza Nuova party

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, ten journalists live under 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. Others include Paolo Borrometi, the editor of an anti-mafia investigative website who Sicilian mobsters were caught on tape threatening to kill, and Lirio Abbate, a journalist with L'Espresso who has had a police escort since his book about connections between politics and the mafia came out in 2007.

That's not to mention nearly 200 other journalists who receive other forms of protection in Italy.

READ MORE:


Roberto Saviano. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

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

In Italy, "journalists increasingly opt to censor themselves because of the pressure from politicians," says Reporters Without Borders.

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 critical approach to the media

In its latest ranking, Reporters Without Borders singled out the Five Star Movement, Italy's single biggest party, which has proved notoriously critical of the country's mainstream press. 

Its co-founder Beppe 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. He banned Five Star members from appearing on talk shows and rarely speaks to the media himself, preferring to communicate via his blog, which is one of the most read in the world, where he has been known to publicly "out" journalists with whom he disagrees.  

But ahead of March's election Grillo formally separated his site from the party, which has shown itself keen to take a different approach under its new, media-friendlier leader Luigi Di Maio.

READ MORE: A new direction for Italy's Five Star Movement? Beppe Grillo distances himself from the party he founded


Beppe Grillo (L) and Luigi Di Maio. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

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 and journalists found guilty can even face prison terms. 

The Vatileaks trials of 2016 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 the same year – was seen as a victory for freedom of the media. Court rulings over the past few years have emphasized that prison terms should only be handed out in extreme circumstances.

6. Freedom of Information isn't always guaranteed

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 2016. 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.

However, in December 2017 the next Democratic Party government passed a controversial law that forbids the publication of wiretapped conversations unless they're deemed "relevant" for a criminal trial. Police must seal any "irrelevant" excerpts, however newsworthy they may be, as secret.

Journalists complained that the new law would hamper their ability to investigate and publish stories in the public interest.

READ ALSO: Italy wiretaps bill could aid mafia and harm press freedom, critics say


Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

7. Fake news is on the rise

One of the fastest-growing threats to the traditional press in Italy is the phenomenon of "fake news", as Italians increasingly turn to social media and customized search engines for their information. The move away from verifiable sources towards algorithms has left Italian audiences "more exposed to the danger of disinformation, to confusion between real facts and fake news, and ideological bubbles or 'echo chambers'", according to regulator Agcom, which declared 2017 the year of fake news.

The concerns, higher than ever in an election year, has produced occasionally heavy-handed responses from the Italian government. While lawmakers ultimately sidelined a proposal to make spreading fake news punishable by prison, ahead of the March election the Interior Ministry set up an online portal where readers could report disinformation directly to the police.

Critics said the measure gave police too much power to decide what can and can't be published on the web – including the United Nations' special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, who wrote to the Italian government to express his concerns that the move was "incompatible" with laws protecting freedom of opinion and information.

The government's site was taken down after the vote, but Italy's debate over how to tackle misinformation without veering into censorship continues.  

READ ALSO: The impact of 'fake news' on the Italian election


Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

This is an updated version of an article first published in 2017. 

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