Italian gag law threatens bloggers with €25,000 fines for ‘incorrect' facts
Bloggers, podcasters and even anyone who posts updates on social networks such as Facebook all face being slapped with fines of up to €25,000 for publishing incorrect facts, if a bill that journalists' organisations are calling "authoritarian" currently before the Italian parliament is passed.
A provision within the government's Media and Wiretapping Bill will extend Italy's "obbligo di rettifica", or rectification obligation - a law dating back to 1948 that requires newspapers to publish corrections - to the internet and indeed anyone "responsible for information websites".
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According to the draft law, bloggers and other online publishers - which lawyers believe includes users of Facebook and Myspace - will be obliged to post corrections within 48 hours of any complaint regarding their content.
If authors do not comply, they face fines of up to €25,000. European digital rights campaigners and Italian journalists warn that the move could darken much of Italian cyberspace as for small-scale bloggers, website owners and even those who comment on discussion pages, it would be a near impossibility to deal with a complaint within the alloted time span.
Furthermore, warns the European Digital Rights (EDRI), a pan-European coalition of online civil liberties advocacy organisations, the law implies that bloggers must register with a legal domicile with some authority, facing the same bureaucratic formalities as the written press and that they will have to connect to the internet every single day in order to check whether there is a request for correction and place the correction in due time.
Attempts to soften the law by extending the correction period and reducing the fine to €2500 were rejected last week by the head of the chamber's justice committee.
EDRI warned on Wednesday in a statement that the law "will add new barriers to freedom of expression on the internet," and "would discourage bloggers who will hesitate to write on economical or political issues that might bother certain personalities."
The bill as a whole, whose main purpose is to restrict the use of wiretapping and the ability of publications to quote wiretap transcripts, has provoked an outcry by journalists.
The law proposes to prohibit the publication of transcripts of wiretap recordings, leaks of which in recent years have become something of a staple in the Italian press, particularly in cases of alleged government corruption and organised crime - and indeed Prime Minister Berlusconi.
Journalists or editors that publish such transcripts would face fines of up to €464,700.
The government defends the bill as a necessary to protect the privacy of individuals that are the targets of judicial investigations.
"In Italy, we are all spied on. There are 150,000 telephones that are tapped and it is intolerable," Mr Berlusconi recently said, explaining why the law was required.
On 8 July, the FNSI press union led a publication strike in which most of the country's newspapers apart from a handful of conservative papers and ones published by Prime Minister Berlusconi's media empire. The press "black-out" was intended to "show the kind of silence that the law would impose," according to the union.
Reporters Without Borders told EUobserver the law was "authoritarian".
"This is not just an attempt to gag bloggers and actually all journalists, but more widely it is about stopping the investigation of corruption and organised crime," said Olivier Basille, the head of the group's Brussels office.
"Privacy is important, but in these sort of cases, the public interest in knowing this information outweighs such concerns," he continued.
He said the bill should be seen as an embarrassment by the whole of the European Union: "This is an important issue for Italy, but it is crucial for the EU. Italy is sending a signal to countries beyond the EU that it is okay to severely restrict press freedoms."
"When the EU speaks to China or Syria or whoever about press freedoms, they will say, ‘Ah, but the EU is already doing the same thing.'"
"It's not just Italy though. There are problems with Ireland, Bulgaria and Romania as well. In January last year, Ireland passed an anti-blasphemy law under which you can be fined €20,000. When our organisation raised concerns about a journalist being jailed for blasphemy in the Yemen, they said right back to us: ‘But Ireland does the same thing,' and to some extent they're right."
Reporters Without Borders has complained to the commission about the Italian law "several times", but the commission "cannot oppose this because it is not related to commerce, the single market, these sorts of things."
Commission fundamental rights spokesman Matthew Newman told this website that Brussels will wait until the final law is passed before commenting on whether any aspect contravenes EU law. "It's a moving target at the moment, with all sorts of amendments. It's too early to comment."
In response, the Reporters Without Borders has written to European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, hoping that at the member-state level some pressure could be brought to bear on Rome.
While Brussels is keeping quite on the legislation, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in June condemned the bill in June, saying it ""could seriously hinder investigative journalism in Italy."
Mr Berlusconi's arch-rival in his conservative People of Freedom party, Gianfranco Fini, has also sharply criticised the draft law.
The bill was due to be discussed by Italian MPs on Thursday, as the government had hoped to have it passed before the summer recess at the end of the month. Due to agenda problems, it is now expected to be considered some time in early September.
In 2007, the country's then centre-left government of Romano Prodi proposed a similar bill that was subsequently abandoned. Journalists went on strike to protest that legisation as well.