Connect to share and comment

How Italian media censorship works

Berlusconi controls many outlets, but Italian law also contributes to restrictions on press freedom.

In Italy there are several ways to assert power over the media: the most visible option is through the use of lawsuits. According to Argia Bignami, a Rome attorney specializing in intellectual property issues, a news report can be considered libelous under Italian law unless it meets three criteria: It must be true, it must be newsworthy and it must meet standards for public decency. The third measure is subject to the most interpretation.

“Flawed cases are eventually thrown out, but the process is slow and very expensive,” Bignami said. “A public figure can bleed a media outlet through legal fees.”

The Economist magazine based in the United Kingdom is a good example. When Berlusconi returned to politics after a seven-year hiatus in 2001, the magazine famously ran a cover story showing a pensive close-up of Berlusconi and a large-print headline reading “Why Silvio Berlusconi is unfit to lead Italy.” Berlusconi sued, saying the claim was indecent.

Seven years later, a judge ruled against him and he was ordered to repay $1.2 million in court costs. The Economist has not backed away from its criticisms since then, but it is easy to imagine that most media would buckle under that kind of pressure.

RAI’s fairness doctrine is an example of another strategy in which powerful figures, even if they don't have any official role in the company, can impact a media outlet’s policies or have troublesome personalities fired or transferred, simply by offering or withholding favors.

Journalists Marco Travaglio and Michele Santoro, two of Berlusconi’s most vocal critics, know that tactic first hand. Both have been fired — and then re-hired, under pressure — from RAI for voicing views unpopular with the Berlusconi camp, and the program they host, AnnoZero, is one of those impacted by the new rules. But for his part, Travaglio said he saw his reinstatement as a positive.

“There are very worrying signs when it comes to press freedom in Italy, but there are encouraging signs as well,” he said. “Maybe the Berlusconi era will come to be seen as a war the Italian media goes through in order to emerge healthier on the other side.”