Italy

By Christopher Henry

italy-flag

I. Introduction

According to Freedom House’s Press Freedom Index, Italy is ranked as the 57th most free country in the world for freedom of press. Journalism is not a very glamorous or respected career in Italy (Freedom House). Furthermore, to become a full-time journalist one has to pass an exam and receive documentation. In 2012-13 the country ranked 61st for both years and in 2010 it was ranked 50th. This data suggests that Italy’s press freedom has become rather uncertain as of late. The reasons for this are many; however, this essay will shed some light on why this country is the least free in the European Union.

II. Historical Background.

Italy is one of the oldest populated areas in the world with Rome founded in 753 BC, however, the country did not formally unify until 1861. The country participated in both of the world wars, the government has also evolved and for a brief time Italy was under the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini during World War II. Italy is located on the Mediterranean Sea in southern Europe. The country is known for the birth of the Renaissance and key figures such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Marconi, inventor of the telegraph. Currently, Italy is mostly known for its food, fashion and vacation spots. Currently, they have a population of 59 million, most of which are Roman Catholic and consist of 92% Italian (Di Scala). Due to Italy’s fascist government and rule during World War II the people of Italy are extremely sensitive to fascism and it is reflected in their laws, government policies and even their social climate (Baranski). After WWII, the fascist regime toppled and the Italian government experienced a rebirth as a new republic. With this new form of government the Italian people also created a new modern constitution. The republic created a parliament, prime minister and president. The presidential position is mostly ceremonial with the prime minister being in charge of the overall government (Frigo). The first example of freedom of press, speech and protest was in the 1947 Italian Constitution.

According to Article 21:

Anyone has the right to freely express their thoughts in speech, writing, or any other form of communication. The press may not be subjected to any authority on or censorship. Seizure may be permitted only by judicial order stating the reason and only for offences expressly determined by the law on the press or in case of violation of the obligation to identify the persons responsible for such offences… Publications, performances, and other exhibits offensive to public morality shall be prohibited. Measures of preventive and repressive measure against such violations shall be established by law. (Senato della Repubblica)

This, as most constitutional scholars may notice, is very similar to the American Bill of Rights, specifically the First Amendment. This passage also includes some provisions that reflect American court decisions. Italy is also known as one of the slower countries to advance in human rights as women were not granted the right to a divorce until the mid 1970s (Duggan).

III. Free Speech

In recent decades, the media in Italy unlike other European powers has become extremely consolidated with one man, Silvio Berlusconi, controlling many of the media outlets. According to Freedom Houseand The European Federation of Journalists, in 2012, Berlusconi controlled roughly 90% of the country’s broadcast media outlets. Berlusconi was, until recently the Prime Minister of Italy as well. Due to his political and media power, Berlusconi had vast amounts of influence with the Italian people. This is viewed as one of the main reasons as to why there is such as lack of freedom of speech and press in the country (Hibberd).

The most prominent, current freedom of speech issue is the use, abuse and power of free social media sites such as YouTube and Google. Though the Internet is generally unrestricted, it can be restricted for legal or criminal purposes (Freedom House). In 2010, Berlusconi sought $779 million in damages against YouTube and Google for “misusing video it produced” (Barry). According to an article in the Herald-Tribune, “four Google executives were charged with defamation and violating privacy for allowing a video to be posted that showed an autistic youth being abused” (Barry). At the publication of this article, the court decision had not been. However, the Milan court’s stance on this matter, for allowing this to reach the courts, definitely had a chilling effect on these Internet corporations and the people who use them. Furthermore, cases such as this one defines and sets court and cultural precedents of what is worth Supreme Court action.

In March 2010, certain Italian newspapers published embarrassing articles about Berlusconi and his political allies. The newspapers published phone taps ordered by prosecutors, which proved that he was using his political powers to silence public and political opposition. Apparently, the former prime minister was putting pressure on a few of his opponents in small town in the countryside and the press got wind of it (Brevini). Berlusconi took action against the media outlets by using his political coalition to pass gag laws to safeguard privacy, specifically his (Brevini). The newspapers were not charged with anything because at that time, publishing public wiretaps was legal. Since then Berlusconi’s law has passed and it is punishable by fine or prison sentence if this law is broken. Italy has a very long and prominent history of wiretaps and without them, major mafia leaders such as Salvatore Riina would not have been arrested.

In June 2010, the Italian government passed a wiretap law on electronic surveillance. The bill restricted pre-trial reporting and the publishing of documents related to the investigation before the trial. If such documents were published, the company would have to pay fines up to 450,000 euros. People were extremely angry about this law and protested it heavily, journalists around the country held a news blackout strike in July and the online encyclopedia site, Wikipedia halted its Italian website for a period of time (Index).

It is illegal to burn, damage or destroy the Italian flag in anyway, however, though this law is a part of the Italian constitution, it is rarely enforced. When separatist leader, Umberto Bossi was running for public office, he publicly burned the Italian flag as a part of a political demonstration. His actions were covered and commented on by the local and national media, but he was not punished by any state officials. In 1998, Bossi received a suspended prison sentence for “incitement of violence” after he publically said “We must hunt down these rascals [neo-fascists], and if they take votes from us, then let’s comb the area house by house, because we kicked the fascists out of here once before, after the war” (Deutsche Presse-Agentur).

The United Nations Human Rights Committee and the European Federation of Journalists both disagree with all of the court rulings except for the desecration of the Italian flag ruling. The organization strongly hold that these laws and court decisions will not only have a chilling effect on the media but also on the citizen’s view of civil rights. Three of these recent cases limited Italy’s constitutional right in regards to freedom of speech. However, these cases are not reflective of the Italian people because it seems that in most cases one man is pulling the proverbial strings. If Berlusconi did not control 90% of televised airways and was not prime minister, would Italy have passed such archaic free speech laws i.e. wiretapping? It has become popular world belief that Berlusconi abused his media and political power for his own interest until his untimely departure in 2011 (Freedom House). He resigned due to his political party’s lack of faith in him and he currently on trail for four separate charges. One charge for corruption, one charge of abuse of power, one charge of defamation, and one charge of sex with an underage prostitute. Only two of these recent charges have been decided. For abuse of power he was issued a 1 year prison sentence and for sex with an underage prostitute he got a seven year prison sentence and a lifelong public office ban.

 

IV. Free Press

As referenced earlier, Italy has had quite a few freedom of speech issues, especially since their former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi owned 90% of the televised media. However, Berlusconi’s reach, though wide, did not have complete control over the press nor its government view of it. There was quite a few times in which the press published articles that criticized Berlusconi or the government under his rule.

One of the main issues that faced Italian press in recent years has been what defines a newspaper in regards to online media. In 2004, historian Carlo Ruta created his own blog and began to publish some of his works. The blog discussed civil matters in Italy and was called “Civil Happens in Sicily” (Livraghi). Police shut down the blog because it violated Article 16 in the Italian Constitution and a court in Modica issued Ruta a criminal sentence on May 8, 2008. Due the blog not being an authorized newspaper, it had no rights under the Constitution (La Stampa). The ruling was upheld by the Court of Appeals in May 2011. In May 2012, the Supreme Court of Italy overturned the previous rulings in favor of Ruta, stating that “the crime of illegal printing is not applicable to a blog on the Internet” (Cassazione).

In Italy, the government is extremely harsh in its views of defamation of character. Defamation is a criminal offense and penalized by fines and imprisonment (Freedom House). Furthermore, civil suits against journalists in Italy are extremely common. In 2012, former director of the newspaper Alto Adige and one of the paper’s current journalists were charged with defamation of character in reference to an article about a provincial council member. Journalist Orfeo Donatini, wrote that the member participated in a neo-Nazi summit. The council member sued the paper for defamation and won. Donatini and his former director, Tiziano Marson, received a fine of $19,200 and four months in prison (Freedom House). The information came from a private police report. The National Federation of the Italian Press was extremely concerned with decision because they felt it would have a chilling effect on the media and journalists (Freedom House), especially since the information was legally obtained and was legally published.

If there is any positive aspect to the harsh ruling of the Italian government, it is that there is no political bias on who is charged with libel or defamation. In 2011, Libero, a right-wing newspaper, published an anonymous comment that called for the death of a doctor, a judge and the parents who were involved in an abortion for a 13-year-old (Freedom House). Because the girl was a minor and abortions are illegal in Italy, she had to received special permission from a judge to have the procedure. The former editor of the paper, Alessandro Sallusti, who allowed the anonymous death threat to be published, was charged with a 14-month prison sentence. The sentence was later upheld in 2012. Interestingly enough, the anonymous comment was made by a member of Berlusconi’s party. Due to public outrage and political pressure, Berlusconi said that he would bring Italian libel laws up to European Court of Human Rights standards (Freedom House), though it is unclear if Berlusconi ever did.

V. Critical Comparison

Because the post-WWII Italian Constitution was heavily influenced by the United States Constitution, it is important to compare and contrast how each country has ruled on the political and cultural cases presented before them, especially since the First Amendment and Article 21 closely parallel one another.

The first case referenced in section III was in regards to the power, legitimacy and rights of You Tube and Google. The Italian government, specifically Berlusconi, believed that the video posted needed to be heavily controlled. If a similar case was presented in the United States, the court would side with YouTube and cite the First Amendment as the reason. Furthermore, the courts might reflect on the clear and present danger test or Brandenburg v. Ohio decision. The Brandenburg decision is important because it proved that hate speech is somewhat protected by the government unlike in Italy.

The second freedom of speech case discussed was about the embarrassing article published about how Berlusconi tried to silence his opposition by putting political pressure on them in a countryside town in Italy. The press received this information through a common police wiretap. If this case of “illegal” wiretapping had occurred in America, the judges would have sided with the journalists for multiple reasons. First, it was not the journalist who did the wiretapping, but government officials. Second, the only reason why this became a case and later a law was because the prime minister was embarrassed that he was caught doing something illegal. In the U.S., there was a somewhat similar case, Pennecamp v. Florida, where public officials were embarrassed by a newspaper and tried to rule for damages. However, in this case the public officials did not win the case. This is because the Supreme Court believed that it was the media’s job to criticize and review the government as a way to keep the government in check. Furthermore, since the wiretapping exposed the truth, Berlusconi’s claims would not hold up in an American court.

The third freedom of speech case referred to an Italian statue about flag burning. In Italy, flag burning is illegal but is not publically enforced, as noted in Bossi’s politically charged rally. In America, flag burning has been clearly defined and legal since the Texas v. Johnson decision in 1989. Because the Italian law is not enforced, it stands far closer to the American standard than any of the other freedom of speech cases referenced.

The American-made Internet is something that is widely protected on U.S. shores. However, in other countries, especially Italy, there is still some doubt to its legitimacy and worth. In Italy, historian Ruta published a blog about Italian politics, but because he had no legitimate authority or a license, like those that are granted to newspapers, he was sued. In America, blogs are viewed as vessels of freedom of speech and is not subject to legal issue. There is no authority or consent needed to publish a blog and this case would have not even been entertained in American politics. The First Amendment protects U.S. citizens, who are the ones who created, write and publish blogs. The blogs in essence are given free speech rights because of the connection to the people that write them.

The defamation case where a local newspaper published a report at alleged that a city council member had attended a Neo-Nazi is far more controversial in Italy than it would be in America. First, the statements that were made were apparently false but were based in a public police report. Therefore, by Italian standards the newspaper, not the police are at fault. In America the police would be under fire in America for producing a libelous report. Libel is a civil issue and is usually solved by monetary compensation depending how defamatory the statement was, but because he was a public figure he would not be able to press charges anyway due to the Sullivan decision. In Italy though, there is no Sullivan decision and libel is a criminal offence, which makes this court decision extremely powerful and precedent setting. The Italian court ruled in favor of the council member and charged the reported with fines and a jail sentence. This case is currently being appealed and has come under siege by the European Union for its unconstitutionality. America, unlike Italy, has a strong court history of protecting its newspapers from charges of libel and defamation.

The next case cited is pretty clear-cut by American legal standards. An Italian newspaper published comment from an anonymous source that called for the death of a doctor, judge and two people who rule in favor of allowing an abortion for a 13-year-old girl. In Italy, the newspaper was held liable for the distasteful comments. In America, there would have been no suit because Times v. Sullivan, Brandenburg v. Ohio, and the First Amendment would have protected the anonymous commenter for expressing their opinion on a political matter. Furthermore, because the comment was anonymous the McIntyre v. Ohio Election Committee decision would have protected the newspaper (Trager). Moreover, the Zeran v. America Online, Inc. decision would allow for the protection of the Italian newspaper because it did not write the comment, but only allowed the comment to be published (Trager). However, the comment may inflict severe emotional distress, which may lead to further complications and perhaps a case, though that is extremely doubtful.

VI. Conclusion

Americans often claim that it is the freest country in the entire world. Though skeptics argue that there are many countries that have more civil liberties, it is clear that the U.S. still heavily values the freedom it gives to their citizens. In all of the freedom of speech and freedom of the press cases referenced, it seems that the United States has far more speech and press freedoms and rights than the people of Italy. Italy is a westernized and civilized country however; in comparison to the US, they seem to have a lot of growing to do in matter of civil liberties. In Italy’s defense, the American Bill of Rights has been in existence since 1791 and the Italian Constitution is not even 70 years old. However, since there has already been a string of court cases and laws limiting free speech rights, a court precedent has been made and it may be harder to undue years of restrictions.

This post was last updated on April 30, 2014.

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Livraghi, Giancarlo. “Digital Civil Rights in Europe » Blog Archive » There Is No Censorship in Italy, But….” Digital Civil Rights in Europe » Blog Archive » There Is No Censorship in Italy, But…. N.p., 26 Sept. 2008. Web. 26 Mar. 2014. <http://edri.blogactiv.eu/2008/09/26/there-is-no-censorship-in-italy-but/&gt;.

Scala, Spencer Di. Italy: From Revolution to Republic, 1700 to the Present. Boulder: Westview, 2004. Print.

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One Response to Italy

  1. Pingback: Freedom(less) of Speech | Meddling in the Mediterranean

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