Italy launches investigation into Russian disinformation claims

An official investigation has begun amid widespread concern about Kremlin-linked Russian commentators appearing on Italian news channels.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was interviewed on an Italian talk show.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was interviewed on an Italian talk show. Photo by Maxim SHIPENKOV / POOL / AFP.

Italy’s parliamentary committee for security, Copasir, opened the probe this week in response to widespread concerns that Italian news outlets are being used to spread Russian propaganda, according to media reports.

The inquiry comes after Italian news channels repeatedly invited Russian journalists and pro-Kremlin Italian commentators to speak on their programmes in recent months.

READ ALSO: Pro-Russia hackers target Italian official websites

The recent appearance of Russia’s foreign minister Sergej Lavrov on the political talk show Zona Bianca sparked a particular outcry in Italy, reports newspaper Corriere della Sera.

Lavrov used the platform to repeat claims that Ukraine’s President Zelensky was a Nazi, despite his being Jewish – also falsely claiming that even Hitler was part Jewish.

He also denied that Russian forces were behind the atrocities committed against Ukrainian civilians in Bucha, despite clear evidence to the contrary.

Italy’s president Mario Draghi called the comments “bizarre and obscene”, reported Corriere della Sera.

Part of the committee’s mission is to determine whether it is legitimate to invite organs of the Russian state to appear on Italian current affairs shows.

The repeat appearance on Italian talk shows of Nadana Fridrikhson, a journalist from the Russian state-owned TV network Zvezda which is run by Russia’s Ministry of Defence, has also caused consternation among audiences in Italy.

“Russian disinformation works through espionage, hiring by Russian companies, campaigns and fake news,” Copasir’s president Adolfo Urso reportedly said as he announced the investigation.

“We must therefore ensure that the information is free from this systematic work of foreign interference.”

READ ALSO: Italy expels 30 Russian diplomats over security concerns

Urso pointed to a report by a European task force which had identified more than 13,000 instances of Russian disinformation in the EU since 2014 as evidence of the scale of the problem.

The committee has called on the president of the media watchdog Agcom, the director of Italy’s security agency Aisi, and the CEO of the national broadcaster Rai to provide evidence in a series of hearings.

Following testimony delivered by Rai CEO Carlo Fuortes on Thursday, Urso said that the session “proved fruitful, providing useful insights in order to protect freedom, editorial and informational autonomy and pluralism against any form of conditioning and to increase the resilience of the entire country-wide system,” according to news agency Ansa.

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Berlusconi’s bad break-up with Putin reveals strained Italy-Russia ties

The chummy relationship between former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Russian President Vladimir Putin goes back decades. The invasion of Ukraine has put it under pressure.

Berlusconi's bad break-up with Putin reveals strained Italy-Russia ties

After a tycoon bromance, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi is struggling to break up with Russia’s Vladimir Putin over the Ukraine war — like many in his country, where ties with Moscow run deep.

The billionaire former premier’s unwillingness to speak ill of Putin is echoed by other leading Italian politicians, while in the media, there are concerns that pro-Russian sentiment has warped into propaganda.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi is committed to NATO and the EU, strongly backing sanctions against Moscow, and at his urging a majority of Italy’s MPs approved sending weapons to help Ukraine defend itself.

But much of Draghi’s coalition government — Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Matteo Salvini’s League and the once anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) — has long pursued a “special relationship” with Moscow.

Italy used to have the largest Communist party in the West, and many businesses invested in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, while Russians in turn sought opportunities here.

Barely a month before the February 24 invasion, Putin spent two hours addressing top Italian executives at a virtual meeting.

Beds, hats, parties

Berlusconi, 85, has been out of office for more than a decade but remains influential both in politics and through his media interests, as founder of the Mediaset empire.

He was an ardent admirer of the Russian leader, and a close chum — they stayed in each other’s holiday homes, skied together and were snapped sporting giant fur hats.

“They were two autocrats who mutually reinforced their image: power, physical prowess, bravado, glitz,” historian and Berlusconi author Antonio Gibelli told AFP.

Putin gave Berlusconi a four-poster bed, in which the Italian had sex with an escort in 2008, according to her tell-all book. He in turn gave Putin, 69, a duvet cover featuring a life-sized image of the two men.

In the months before the Ukraine war, Berlusconi continued to promote his close ties, including a “long and friendly” New Year’s Eve phone call.

It was not until April, two months after Russia’s invasion, that he publicly criticised the conflict, saying he was “disappointed and saddened” by Putin.

He has struggled to stay on message since then.

Speaking off the cuff in Naples last week, he said he thought “Europe should… try to persuade Ukraine to accept Putin’s demands”, before backtracking and issuing a statement in Kyiv’s support.

“Breaking the twinning with Putin costs Berlusconi dearly: he has to give up a part of his image,” Gibelli said.

Meanwhile, the leader of the anti-immigration League, Salvini, who has proudly posed in Putin T-shirts in the past, has argued against sending weapons to aid Ukraine.

The League did condemn Russia’s military aggression, “no ifs and no buts”, on February 24 when Russia invaded.

But an investigation by the L’Espresso magazine earlier this week found that, in the over 600 messages posted by Salvini on social media since Russia invaded, he had not once mentioned Putin by name.

He did so for the first time on Thursday, saying “dialogue” with Putin was good, and encouraging a diplomatic end to the war.

‘Biased media’

Many pro-Russian figures are given significant airtime in the media, which itself is highly politicised.

“Italy is a G7 country with an incredibly biased media landscape,” Francesco Galietti, founder of risk consultancy Policy Sonar, told AFP.

TV talk shows are hugely popular in Italy, and “one of the main formats of information” for much of the public, notes Roberta Carlini, a researcher at the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom at the European University Institute.

But she warns they often “obscure facts”.

Italy’s state broadcaster RAI is being investigated by a parliamentary security committee for alleged “disinformation”, amid complaints over the frequent presence of Russian guests on talks shows.

Commercial giant Mediaset is also in hot water after airing an interview with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in which highly polemical claims went unchallenged.

It defended the interview, saying good journalism meant listening to “even the most controversial and divisive” opinions.

“RAI is a reflection of the political landscape, with its many pro-Russian parties. And Mediaset… well, Berlusconi is an old pal of Putin’s, so what do you expect?” Galietti said.

He also points to a decades-long culture in Italy of allowing conspiracy theories — particularly on the interference of US spies in Italian politics — to circulate in the media unchallenged.

“You end up with a situation where Russia Today (RT) is considered as authoritative as the BBC,” he said.