In what seems destined to become
an increasingly heated summer season, a poisonous dispute over a controversial
anti-wiretapping bill is turning into a proxy for Italy’s opposing
forces to renegotiate the terms of the country’s political debate,
whose liveliness has been cooled, for over a decade now, by the towering
presence of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
On July 29th, Italy’s
lower house of Parliament will debate and vote on a bill that, if approved,
may strike a crippling blow to the independent powers of the judiciary
and to the media. The bill, drafted by Berlusconi’s closest allies
in Parliament and dubbed by critics “the gagging law”, aims to curb
the use of wiretaps by law enforcement agencies, and would impose daunting
restrictions on journalists reporting on crime.
While Italy’s center-left
parties, together with the police, prosecutors and publishers, rally
around the opposition to the bil,
self-doubt is creeping in Berlusconi’s ruling coalition and a degree
of open discomfort with his decisions is leaking out. Berlusconi still
has the votes to come out on top. But with the bill hanging in mid-air
for months, subject to never-ending amendments, and shuttling back and
forth between the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate while it awaits
final approval, its flaws -- and Berlusconi’s personal stake in it
-- are increasingly difficult to hide, even for the Prime Minister’s
most trusted operatives.
If passed, the bill would significantly
raise the standards required to start a wiretap. Investigators would
need to provide “serious evidence” of ongoing criminal activities
for the authorization to be warranted. The bill would limit to 75 days
the length of time a wiretap can run (18 months currently). At the end
of the 75 days, investigators would need to reapply for a new authorization
every three days.
For the media, the new law
would forbid prosecutors from discussing with the press any aspects
of an ongoing investigation, including matters that are already in the
public domain. The bill would also punish journalists and publishers
that choose to print or summarize or reference any part of a leaked
wiretap. Reporters risk up to one month in jail and fines of up to 10,000
euros, while publishers may have to pay penalties up to 465,000 euros
for each violation.
In short, the bill would significantly
hinder the effectiveness of wiretapping, while also putting an end to
the kind of extensive, sometime aggressive coverage that the Italian
press can provide today on the country’s most high-profile criminal
The right-wing ruling coalition led by Berlusconi has been pursuing the passage of the bill for months, arguing that the legislation is needed in order to protect the privacy of individual citizens from a judicial branch, and media, gone mad. The center-left opposition believes instead that this is yet another attempt by the prime minister to protect himself and his closest allies, at the expense of Italy’s democracy, from potentially devastating investigations into their often not-so-transparent dealings.
By all measures, Italy is the most wiretapped country in Europe. According to figures released by the Italian Ministry of Justice, 124,326 phone lines were wiretapped in 2008. In 2004, the German-based Max Planck Institute calculated that 76 out of every 100,000 Italians had their conversations eavesdropped into, well ahead of the Dutch (62) and of the Swedes (33).
By the same token, Italy is
no ordinary democracy given the levels of government corruption
and the pervasiveness of criminal organizations, the Sicilian Mafia
only being the most popular. Against this backdrop, wiretaps have often
proven to be an invaluable tool in the hands of investigators.
As for the press, considering
the desperately slow pace with which the Italian justice system moves
forward, unauthorized leaks have come to represent the only means to
inform the public on issues of national interests that may otherwise
never come to light. While Berlusconi claims that the law is aimed at
reinstating the freedom of the Italian people to speak unreservedly
on the phone, Francesco Pizzetti, the head of Italy’s privacy regulatory
body, complained that the bill shifted the balance between press freedom
and privacy “completely on the side of privacy,” thus creating “a
danger to press freedom.”
Overall, some of Italy’s
most successful attempts at probing the illicit activities of criminal
organizations have originated in wiretaps, sometime serendipitously.
Pietro Grasso, Italy’s widely respected National anti-Mafia Prosecutor
warned that this bill would cripple the fight against the Mafia, making
it particularly difficult to investigate money-laundering schemes. The
bill’s proponents argue that in the prosecution of self-evident mafia-related
crimes, authorities would be granted much wider leeway. The truth is
that it is often by following the lead of seemingly marginal frauds,
from tax evasion to minor episodes of corruption, that authorities have
made their most important discoveries about the operations of criminal
Even beyond organized crime,
wiretaps and subsequent leaks to the press have scored major successes
in exposing some of the corrupt practices common among
Italian officials .
In 2005, transcripts from tapped
conversations brought down Central Bank Governor Antonio Fazio, who
was heard rigging the takeover of an Italian bank, Banca Antonveneta,
in favor of a domestic bidder.
In February this year, more
wiretaps led to the political demise of Berlusconi’s former crony
Guido Bertolaso, the head of the Civil Protection Agency. He is under
investigation for receiving bribes in exchange for government contracts
in the run-up to the 2009 G8 summit, originally planned in the island
La Maddalena, off the coast of Sardinia, and then moved to the earthquake-ravaged
city of L’Aquila, Abruzzo.
In May, the Minister of Industry
Claudio Scajola was forced to resign after court documents of an ongoing
investigation were leaked to a newspaper, which showed that the Minister
had bought a large apartment in Rome with money provided by a builder
that had been offered government contracts .
It is widely known that Prime
Minister Berlusconi himself has not been immune from wiretapping-related
scandals. Last year, Berlusconi was the subject of multiple wiretaps,
whose transcripts, leaked to the press, revealed the Prime Minister’s
rather lively sex-life.
Some fear that this, really,
is the heart of the issue. Italy’s overuse of wiretapping and tradition
of leaks to the press may need to be better regulated, but the suspicion
lingers that this exceedingly rigid bill is only the most recent in
a long series of ad-personam laws passed by Berlusconi’s government
for the benefit of the [embattled prime minister.
Since the start of the legislative
process, Italy’s ruling coalition has appeared to be united behind
Berlusconi’s insistent efforts at curbing the practice of wiretapping.
The Prime Minister’s most
recent show of force came just last week. An unwilling Speaker of the
Chamber of Deputies Gianfranco Fini, under pressure by the Chamber’s
leadership, was forced to schedule the debate on the bill for July 29th,
squeezing it in between an urgently-needed vote on budget cuts – austerity
measures meant to prevent Italy from falling into a Greek-style credit
crisis – and the summer recess.
This was, from the get-go,
a controversial decision, which, in the long run, may prove counter-productive
Giorgio Napolitano, President
of the Republic, immediately signaled his disappointment, having asked
only a few days before that Parliament prioritize moving forward with
the debate on the economic crisis without getting distracted by matters
that tend to poison the political climate.
Speaker Fini, echoing the words
of the national anti-Mafia Prosecutor Grasso -- who spoke strongly about
the consequences this bill would have on the ability of law enforcement
to investigate organized crime -- urged everybody to reconsider certain
aspects of the legislation and to come to an alternative arrangement.
On Thursday, two of Berlusconi’s
staunchest allies also seemed to falter, at least partially. Renato
Schifani, President of the Senate, indicated that, no matter what happens
in the Chamber of Deputies over the summer, if there are amendments
to the bill -- which there will be -- the Senate will not be able to
pick it up again until after recess, therefore slowing down Berlusconi’s
Umberto Bossi, Chairman of
the Northern League, a populist anti-immigration party allied
with Berlusconi’s People of Freedom -PDL, added that a balance
will need to be struck between the right to privacy of individual Italian
citizens and the need of law enforcement agencies to have the necessary
tools for the prosecution of illegal activities.
This time, Prime Minister Berlusconi
may just have over-reached. While his position, as well as his government,
remains safe -- at least for the time being -- his decision to push
for an accelerated resolution to the wiretapping controversy has not
been warmly received, even by his closest allies.
On the contrary, a bill that was designed to help the Prime Minister close ranks within his coalition and put an end to a series of scandals that have jeopardized his government in previous months, seems to be sparking, instead, the renaissance of an independent public debate in Italy, revealing a few cracks even within the otherwise monolithic majority built by the media mogul-turned-politician.