17th May 2022

Thousands protest threats to Italian press freedom

  • Mr Berlusconi is currently suing a number of European newspapers including Spain's El Pais (Photo: www.elpais.com)

The debate over press freedom in Italy is growing as thousands of Italians rallied in Rome on Saturday (3 October) and the European Parliament gears up for a discussion of the issue in a plenary session this Wednesday.

Organisers put the attendance at Saturday's Rome protest at 300,000 while the police estimated the crowds to number 60,000.

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The event is certain to increase the pressure on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, long accused of suffocating freedom of speech in the Mediterranean country.

Unlike before however, Mr Berlusconi's summer attacks on domestic and foreign press appear to have reached a tipping point.

July and August saw the premier hit back at news outlets covering the sleaze scandal centred around lavish weekend parties held at his Sardinian villa, to which celebrities and call-girls were invited.

Mr Berlusconi denies he paid anyone to sleep with him, and is suing the left-leaning Italian newspapers La Repubblica and L'Unita, as well as others in France and Spain.

"We ask the prime minister to stop the campaign of accusations against journalists and to tell the truth," Franco Siddi, head of the Italian Press Federation, told the noisy crowd in Rome's central Piazza del Popolo on Saturday.

The event was attended by numerous high-profile figures from the film and literary worlds, including Gomorra author Roberto Saviano, and received a strong showing from senior opposition politicians.

Mr Berlusconi owns Mediaset, which controls Italy's three main private channels, and heads the government that directs RAI, the public broadcaster. He also owns Il Giornale, a daily newspaper a publishing and advertising empire.

The prime minister called the protests "a farce" and said that press freedom is greater in Italy than in any other Western nation.

European Parliament

But this view is not shared by everyone. Democracy promotion NGO Freedom House has downgraded Italy to the "partly free" category in its annual survey this year and placed it 73rd out of 195 counties.

Media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders says the press in Italy is the least free in the European Union.

A number of MEPs in the European Parliament are also concerned about the issue, with the topic set to provide lively debate in a plenary session this Wednesday in Brussels, not least due to the high number of deputies from Mr Berlusconi's People of Freedom party.

In a letter to the UK's Guardian newspaper over the weekend, a group of MEPs urged their colleagues to support a vote in the chamber on 22 October for a resolution criticising Italy's lack of press freedom.

"The lack of a European response to the intimidation of the press in Italy poses a direct threat to the right of liberty of expression throughout the European Union," reads the letter.

Such critics were provided with further ammunition over the weekend following an intervention into the debate by the recently appointed head of news at Italia's RAI 1 television station, Augusto Minzolini.

While the crowd chanted slogans in Piazza del Popolo, Mr Minzolini took the decision to address the nation via the state broadcaster's main prime-time television news bulletin, declaring: "it seems absurd to me to suggest that press freedom is jeopardised."

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