28th Oct 2021

MEPs call for anti-Italian sanctions in press freedom row

The nasty brawl over press freedom in Italy came to Brussels on Wednesday (7 October), as left-leaning MEPs called for punitive EU measures against Rome, while right-leaning deputies threw around accusations of subversion and interference in domestic affairs.

"We are extremely worried. The EU was set up to defend common values of peace and freedom, not to intimidate people with regard to press and media freedom," Liberal group leader and former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt told reporters at a press conference.

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  • Prime Minister Berlusconi won the backing of Europe's centre-right, who say there is no threat to press freedom in Italy (Photo: Forza Italia)

"This is why this very press room was named after Anna Politkovskaya," he added, referring to the EU's tribute to a crusading Russian journalist, murdered in 2006 because of her work.

Sitting alongside Mr Verhofstadt, Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini explained that under Article 7 of the EU treaty, member states should hold a probe into the situation in Italy. "And if they don't shape up, then they should take away their voting rights in the Council," she said.

The Liberal and Green deputies also want the European Commission to propose a directive countering media concentration, in order to break up the media monopoly in Italy and prevent similar threats to the press elsewhere in Europe.

The commission will report on Italy to a plenary meeting of the chamber on Thursday. The briefing will be followed by a formal debate, which could end in a resolution criticising the actions of Italian premier Silvo Berlusconi.

Mr Berlusconi owns three commercial broadcasters, has indirect control over three public channels and owns a series of magazines, newspapers and radio stations as well as the country's largest publishing house. His advertising firm controls much of the advertising sales in Italy, allowing his reach to extend to media beyond his direct control.

The MEPs say this has created a climate of media intimidation where journalists are fired for stepping out of line while others self-censor to hold onto their jobs. Key posts in the media are based on an individual being sufficiently deferential to the current administration, critics allege.

Mr Berlusconi recently sued newspapers in Italy, France and Spain and is threatening another in the UK for publishing a series of revelations about escort girls and state flights used to transport them to his private villas.

While much of the rest of Europe knows about the prime minister's alleged dalliances, TG1, Italy's most-watched news programme, has not reported on the scandal.

"Italian citizens do not get information they are entitled to. This is dangerous for a democracy," Ms Sargentini continued.

"Imagine a country that wants to become a member of the EU, but it's a country where most media is controlled by one person, where they threaten journalists that write critical articles and start lawsuits against national and international newspapers asking such huge amounts that they threaten the existence of the newspaper," she said.

"That country would never become a member."

Closing ranks

Centre-right MEPs closed ranks behind Mr Berlusconi in an attempt to scratch the Italy press freedom resolution off the parliament's Thursday agenda. But the European People's Party (EPP) blocking motion failed by 268 votes to 284.

"The European Parliament is not the right place to discuss a national issue," said Frenchman Joseph Daul, the leader of the EPP. "This is political interference designed to disturb a political opponent who was democratically elected by the Italian people."

"[Italy] is a functioning democracy that respects the rule of law," he added.

His centre-right colleague, Italian MEP Mario Mauro, accused the media and the EU's political left wing of trying to subvert the Italian government.

"If you want to talk about a media regime, what you're seeing here is an attempt by some parts of the media to turn reality on its head and to stop a government from doing its job," he said. "The Repubblica-Espresso media concern [two journals critical of the government] is behaving like a political party. Its only aim is to destroy Silvio Berlusconi and ruin his political success."

"[There is] an attempt being made to subvert state institutions," he said.

It is understood that while some other centre-right deputies maintain misgivings about the situation in Italy, they did not want to set a precedent for the European Parliament to begin censuring member states.

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