Italy's 5-Star, stung by fake news claims, calls for OSCE election monitors

ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s anti-establishment 5-Star Movement wants international observers to monitor next year’s national election campaign to help ward off “fake news”, party leader Luigi Di Maio said on Sunday.

FILE PHOTO: 5-Star movement members Beppe Grillo (L), Luigi Di Maio (C) and Alessandro Di Battista attend a demonstration against a new electoral law in downtown Rome, Italy October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Tony Gentile/File Photo/File Photo

His comments came after the ruling Democratic Party (PD) accused 5-Star supporters of using interlinked internet accounts to spread misinformation and smear the center-left government.

Di Maio, who was elected 5-Star leader in September, said his party was often misrepresented by the traditional media and said the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) should oversee the forthcoming election.

“The problem of fake news exists and we think it is necessary to have the OSCE monitor news and political debate during the election campaign,” Di Maio said on Facebook.

Such a request is unlikely to gain traction with 5-Star’s opponents, who allege that the maverick group is to blame for some of the most egregious smear campaigns.

Last week unofficial Facebook accounts that back 5-Star published a photograph purportedly showing a close ally of PD leader Matteo Renzi attending the funeral of Mafia boss Salvatore Riina. In fact it was a photo taken in 2016 at the funeral of a murdered migrant.

“Di Maio says he wants to call up OSCE monitors. Why doesn’t he call up U.N. peacekeepers and the Red Cross, and while he is at it, why not telephone (his associates) who are continuing to post this filth,” Renzi told a conference on Sunday.

The sharing of false or misleading headlines and mass postings by automated social media “bots” has become a global issue, with accusations that Russia tried to influence votes in the United States and France. Moscow has denied this.

Some PD leaders called this weekend for legislation ahead of the elections, which are due by May, to crack down on the spread of false news. Renzi ruled that out on Sunday, but said his party would release twice-monthly reports on web abuses.

“We do not want to shut down any website, but we want accountability,” Renzi said.

The 5-Star party complains that it is unfairly treated by mainstream media, saying state broadcaster RAI is under the sway of the government, while the largest private media group is controlled by the family of former center-right prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Italy’s leading newspapers, which are owned by large industrial concerns, have also been highly critical of 5-Star, which has promised a campaign against corruption and is seen as unfriendly to big business.

Latest polls show 5-Star has built a stable lead over other parties, with support of around 28 percent against 24 percent for the PD and 15 percent for Forza Italia.

A new electoral law which encourages coalition building ahead of the vote, means Berlusconi’s center-right bloc should emerge as the single largest political force, albeit without a clear parliamentary majority.

Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Greg Mahlich