Wiretap bill spurs debate and protests in Italy

In a nation under constant surveillance, critics say the proposed law would chill important watchdog journalism

Published July 8, 2010 5:08PM (EDT)

Silvio Berlusconi is sending out a message as he and his allies fall victim to a string of embarrassing phone call leaks: Stop listening.

The Italian premier is pressing a bill to limit the use of investigative wiretaps that have been the source of numerous scandals, but there is fierce opposition to curbing official eavesdropping in one of the world's most wiretapped nations.

Magistrates warn the contentious legislation winding through parliament would damage their fight against the Mafia, terrorism and pedophilia by severely limiting powers to conduct wiretaps.

Journalists denounce provisions that would ban them from printing wiretap transcripts as a breach of freedom of information, and called a media blackout for Friday to illustrate the impact. Newspaper journalists went on strike Thursday so papers couldn't come out the next day.

Most observers agree a problem does exist in Italy: too many wiretaps, their contents too readily made public, often in violation of privacy and without a clear connection to any relevant probes.

Wiretaps and leaked phone conversations are an important source of fodder for Italian newspapers. Some of it is salacious, as when the purported recordings of a call girl who claimed to have slept with Berlusconi dominated headlines last year for weeks.

In waging his battle against wiretaps, the scandal-plagued Berlusconi, who has been the target of several corruption probes, has cast himself as an unlikely champion of democratic values.

"We are all spied on!" the premier said recently. "Do we realize that this is not a civilized country, that this is not real democracy? ... We can tolerate this no more!"

But critics also say what the premier really wants is to protect himself and his allies.

"The real objective of this bill is to prevent the reporting of judicial cases that have a high political impact, the ones that can generate, and have generated, embarrassment," Roberto Natale, the president of the journalists union, told The Associated Press in an interview.

International organizations have added their voices to the critics, including Reporters Without Borders, which denounced the proposed the law as authoritarian.

Both magistrates and journalists have been the object of scorn by Berlusconi -- the former for the numerous probes they have brought against him, the latter for publishing details of his private life. Both see the premier's moves as an attempt to delegitimize their professions.

Italy is arguably one of the most wiretapped nations on the planet -- but the estimates of how many people are being spied on electronically vary.

According Justice Minister Angelino Alfano, who drafted the bill, there are more than 100,000 authorized taps each year. That compares with 20,000 people wiretapped a year in France, 5,500 in Britain and 1,700 in the United States, Alfano said at the time the bill was presented.

Italians, it seems, have grown accustomed to getting a glimpse of the lives of their rulers, and many simply shrug off the problem, saying that those who have nothing to hide don't care about the wiretapping.

In recent months, most wiretaps leaked to Italian newspapers have emerged from a corruption scandal in which the Italian disaster relief agency is suspected of corruption in connection with contracts for last summer's Group of Eight summit.

Leaked conversations include a former public works official apparently discussing gay prostitutes with a Vatican choir member and a Brazilian masseuse saying her services to the disaster agency chief went no further than giving a massage.

In the past, published wiretaps have included Berlusconi discussing TV shows and actresses with an executive of the public broadcaster.

Despite these excesses, the bill remains highly controversial, even within Berlusconi's own coalition. As a result, it has been modified several times and more changes might come when parliament takes it up again starting July 29.

As it stands, the bill would introduce significant restrictions to investigators, imposing stricter time limits and making the proof needed to win approval for a wiretap tantamount to the proof needed to win a conviction, said Armando Spataro, a leading anti-terrorist prosecutor in Milan.

Spataro said the bill amounts to "deconstructing the most important tool against any type of criminality" and called the measures "illogical" and "inconsistent."

Officials note that investigations for terrorism and Mafia are exempt from the restrictions, but magistrates say those probes often spring from small-time crime cases and that hurting those investigations effectively hurts the fight against major crimes.

For the media, the bill would ban the publication of even a summary of any wiretap until the conclusion of preliminary investigations at the earliest -- something that can require years in Italy's slow-moving justice system.

It envisages a one month jail term for journalists and hefty fines for publishers -- up to euro464,000 -- who are caught in violation.

The law also bans the secret recording of conversations -- a measure quickly dubbed "the D'Addario provision" after the name of the call girl, Patrizia D'Addario, who is believed to have recorded and then leaked to the media her purported conversations with Berlusconi. Secret agents and investigative journalists, however, are exempt.

Newspapers have been filled with accounts of all the stories that Italians would not have heard about if the new regulations had been in place. Gathering in Rome last week, many gagged their mouths with "post-it" style yellow stickers that have become a symbol of the protest.

If the law passes, said journalist union chief Natale -- "Italian citizens would miss out on a lot of news."


Barry reported from Milan.

By Alessandra Rizzo

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