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Italian journalists stage news black-out against 'gag' bill

Government says wiretap law will defend privacy

08 July, 18:48
Italian journalists stage news black-out against 'gag' bill

(ANSA) - Rome, July 8 - Italy will be enveloped in a 24-hour news black-out Friday when journalists across the country strike against the government's controversial bill restricting pretrial reporting and the use of police wiretaps.

Newspapers will not be on the stands and TV and radio news programmes will not be aired.

News agencies will also strike against the bill, which is expected to become law before parliament goes on holiday in mid-August, and the statue in Bolzano of the poet Dante will wear a gag in protest.

The wiretapping bill would curb reporting of cases before they reach the trial stage, a process that takes years in Italy, ban the publication of wiretaps and bring in stiff fines for journalists and publishers.

The government says it is necessary to safeguard privacy by preventing wiretapped conversations of people not under investigation being published.

But journalists say it is a 'gag' on press freedom, arguing the publication of wiretaps has been key in exposing scandals and is in the public interest.

Some newspapers have for months been highlighting articles on probes which would not have become public knowledge if the law had been in force.

''The protest isn't an act of self-defence by a lobby of journalists'' read an editorial on the front page of Thursday's Corriere della Sera.

''It's an alarm cry from those who are worried about the effects of the new law on wiretaps - limits on the ability to spread news, to give information''. Opposition parties are also against the bill, while law enforcement agencies and magistrates have spoken out against the measure too as it would make it harder to obtain authorisation for wiretaps and restrict their duration.

Terrorism and mafia probes are excluded from the measure but prosecutors argue that many mafia cases stem from the investigation of lesser crimes.

''(The black-out) is a gesture of responsibility on the part of Italian journalists in denouncing the government and drawing all citizens' attention to the gravity of a law that hits the whole system of law and order, the fight on crime and the free circulation of news,'' said Rome daily La Repubblica.

LAW IS 'SACROSANCT', SAYS BERLUSCONI

The centre-right government says the law will bring Italy into line with other Western countries and Premier Silvio Berlusconi defended it as "sacrosanct" in its aim of defending privacy Thursday.

The premier, who has accelerated the bill's passage after recent scandals involving wiretapping, argued that an original version had been "overwhelmingly" approved by the centre left during its previous term in power from 2006 to 2008.

"For the Left, democracy and freedom only exist when they're in power," he said. Berlusconi also denied centre-left opposition claims the bill would hurt the fight on the Mafia.

"The exact opposite is true. The bill does not change investigations. Not one crime has been removed from the wiretapping list. Indeed, we've even added one, stalking".

The premier added his government had done more in combating organised crime than any previous one.

Italian journalists union FNSI, which called the black-out, denied Berlusconi's claim that the bill was merely an updated version of a measure first proposed by the centre left.

"Either Berlusconi is suffering from memory lapses or he's turning the truth on its head," said FNSI chief Franco Siddi.

Siddi recalled that Italian journalists went on strike against the original and much less restrictive measure in June 2007, just as they will on Friday.

The FNSI chief urged the government to reconsider FNSI's call for court hearings to establish "what is publishable" and a panel to protect people who have nothing to do with probes rather than the blanket ban contained in the so-called 'gag' bill.

Siddi claimed the proposed restrictions are not aimed at protecting privacy but at "hushing up the woes of a (political) caste".

photo: a protester against the government bill.

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