ROME (Reuters) - Italian magistrates and media are up in arms over a government attempt to restrict wiretaps and slap fines and jail sentences on newspapers that publish transcripts, saying it will help criminals and muzzle the press.
While the centre-right coalition of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi says it wants to protect privacy, the opposition says the government is just scrambling to cover up widespread corruption in its ranks with yet another tailor-made law.
Parliamentarians have been working late into the night to craft the legislation, which critics call a “gagging law”.
The bill languished in parliament for months. But the government quickly dusted it off after newspapers published leaked transcripts from a high-profile graft probe into public work contracts that has tainted Berlusconi’s cabinet.
That inquiry forced Industry Minister Claudio Scajola to resign after media published evidence that his luxury Rome apartment overlooking the Colosseum had been partly paid for by a shady entrepreneur who was jailed for corruption.
Under the draft law, which goes before the full Senate next week, magistrates would be able to order wiretaps only if they have serious evidence that a crime has been committed.
The taps will have to be approved by a panel of three judges and would only last up to 75 days. Special authorisation will be needed to tap the phones of parliamentarians and priests.
The media would be banned from publishing transcripts or summaries and even from reporting on an investigation until the suspects are sent to trial — something that can take years in Italy’s notoriously snail-paced justice system.
Publishers who violate the law could be fined up to 465,000 euros ($577,300) while journalists risk up to one month in jail.
One newspaper that is often critical of the government urged journalists to defy the law at all costs. “Arrest us all if you want,” was the banner headline in Il Fatto Quotidiano.
The government says the bill is designed to protect the privacy of citizens and prevent them from being exposed to public disgrace before they even go on trial.
“We are not muzzling the press but simply preventing the repeat of abuses that have covered in mud people who had nothing to do with any investigation,” said Maurizio Gasparri, Berlusconi’s party chief in the Senate.
An estimated 120,000 phone lines were intercepted in the course of investigations in Italy last year. Italians are used to reading leaked transcripts of often embarrassing private conversations with their morning espresso.
Advocates of wiretaps say many high-profile arrests, particularly of elusive Mafia fugitives, would not have been possible without the help of phone interceptions.
“It would be more honest to simply say they want fewer investigations, fewer checks to make sure the names of famous people don’t end up in the media,” said Giuseppe Cascini of the National Magistrates Association.
The national journalists union is threatening to strike, warning that media coverage of political scandals and judicial proceedings would be seriously hampered if the law passes. (Editing by Mark Heinrich)