Berlusconi to push through wiretap law

ROME, Italy — Anyone who has tried to do business in Italy during the summer knows it well: In August, all public offices and most private ones shut down. In the Bel Paese (Beautiful Country) the "ferie" — or holidays — are sacred.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, however, is a man on a mission.

He has threatened lawmakers that they will have to work well into August to make sure that a new law curbing wiretaps is passed before the fall. 

When passed, it will place severe limits on phone intercepts during investigations, as well as imposing heavy fines on newspapers that publish the transcripts of wiretapped phone calls. Wiretapping happens routinely in Italy, even where no charges have been brought.

A law against wiretaps will amount to imposing a "gag" on the Italian media, according to major news outlets.

With the current law, they say, major scandals — such as the one involving the then governor of Italy's Central Bank, Antonio Fazio, accused in 2005 of rigging the competition to take over an Italian bank, leading eventually to his resignation — would have never come to light.

One major newspaper, La Repubblica, ran a blank front page on June 11 to protest the move. The journalists' union has called a strike for July 9 and vowed “all-out, unending resistance.” The CEO of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sky Italy has even said he is "ready to go to jail" if the new rules are approved. Opposition parties have called for a major protest in Rome against the law on Thursday.

Berlusconi says the new rules are necessary to protect citizens' privacy. “In Italy, we are all spied upon,” he said recently in the law's defense.

The prime minister speaks from experience. Last year, wiretap transcripts were published revealing that he was hosting select parties where young women, including call girls, were the star attraction. Another intercept revealed how he had asked a manager of public television "about girls," to help "raise the boss's morale."

The incidents were reported to have led to his divorce from his second wife and put him at odds with the Catholic Church.

The law could also seriously hamper investigations against the mafia and organized crime, according to the judiciary and police unions. It will require magistrates to have “serious evidence” of a crime before ordering phone intercepts, and then to gain the approval by a panel of three judges. Wiretaps will only be allowed for up to 75 days and, after that, a new authorization for extensions will have to be obtained every three days.

The new rules, according to Luca Palamara, who heads Italy's magistrates' association, will put investigators “on their knees” and mark a “surrender to organized crime” by the state.

His association has pointed out that wiretaps have played a key role in investigations that have led to the arrest, in recent years, of many high-level members of the mob in Sicily and southern Italy. Even if mafia-related crimes are exempt from the rules, they point out that it is often crimes such as tax evasion or corruption that often lead to major breakthroughs against organized crime.

It has often happened that phone calls by people not related to any investigation have been wiretapped, and their names have ended up on the front pages. The opposition and the media counter that because of the slow pace of the Italian judicial system, it can and does take years before an investigation comes to trial. 

The new rules successfully withstood a confidence vote in the Senate on June 10, but now have to win the support of the Chamber of Deputies. There, speaker Gianfranco Fini — a former leader of a post-fascist party which co-founded Berlusconi's People of Freedom party in 2009 — and his allies have often criticized the prime minister and have asked for changes in the law, even if this might mean delaying its approval. A marathon parliamentary session is expected some time in the next few weeks.

Berlusconi hasn't hidden his anger in public but, so far, has had to accept compromise. This may not be for long.

As his recent "ultimatum" shows, Italy's prime minister is keen to have the law passed quickly, even — he threatened — at the expense of budget balancing measures needed to forestall a Greek-style financial crisis.

In fact, it is well known that Italy's prime minister has been dogged by judicial inquiries into his career as a media tycoon ever since he entered politics in 1994. He blames the trials on “leftist” judges who want to bring him down politically.

After coming back to power for the third time in 2008, his majority in parliament has been passing laws aimed — according to the opposition — at protecting him and his allies.

The law on wiretaps had been gathering dust in a parliamentary committee for months, until details emerged in the press about an ongoing corruption investigation into deals linked to major public events, such as the G8 summit hosted by Italy in 2009. Transcripts of wiretaps were leaked and forced one of Berlusconi's key allies, the economic development minister Claudio Scajola, to resign.