14 July 2010

Journalists strike back at gag law with silence and empty newsstands

Journalists across Italy refused to work on 8 July to protest a wiretapping bill that bans reporting on judicial investigations, say the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Index on Censorship. Criticism of the law has also come from outside Italy's borders.

The strike was the "final act" after months of campaigns, debates and appeals, says Index on Censorship: "Opposition to the legislation has united journalists, magistrates, policemen, publishers and civil society organisations for the first time."

Print journalists launched the strike on 8 July, with radio, TV and online journalists joining the next day. Most newspapers were not published. Newspapers' websites were asked to replace news items with press releases, images and explanatory information on the right to report and the right of citizens to be informed, says IFJ.

The gag law, passed in June by the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, will limit a journalist's freedom to investigate and restrict magistrates' criminal probes. Journalists would risk jail and publishers could be fined up to 450,000 Euros for reporting the contents of wiretaps before a defendant is sent to trial. As well, it limits the number of days police are allowed to intercept communications. Critics say it also protects "Italy's scandal prone prime minister," says Index on Censorship.

Wiretaps have long played a critical role in Italian criminal investigations and have led to the arrest of high profile mafia bosses.

"We have organised the Day of Silence to demonstrate what could happen if the wiretapping bill was implemented," said Franco Siddi, General Secretary of the Federazione Nationale della Stampa Italiana (FNSI) and a member of IFJ. "Italian Journalists have fallen silent because the government wants to silence them".

The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Frank La Rue, urged the Italian government to abolish or revise the draft law. "These provisions may hamper the work of journalists to undertake investigative journalism on matters of public interest, such as corruption, given the excessive length of judicial proceedings in Italy, as highlighted repeatedly by the Council of Europe," he said. In its current form, the draft law "poses threats to the right to freedom of expression."

Last month, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OCSE) condemned the bill, explaining that the draft law "contradicts OSCE commitments, as it prohibits the use of some confidential sources and materials which may be necessary for meaningful investigative journalism."

On 14 June, a group of members of the European Parliament urged member states "to monitor and ensure full compliance with the principle of media independence by fully enforcing article 11 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights" and "to prevent undue interference in the work of journalists and media."

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