ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, determined to curb police wiretaps and punish media that print transcripts, called a confidence vote on Wednesday to push through new rules critics have branded a “gagging law.”
The move puts him on a collision course with newspapers, magistrates and the opposition, and effectively forces his center-right lawmakers to toe the line. The vote in the Senate, where Berlusconi has a large majority, will be held on Thursday.
Berlusconi had already issued an ultimatum to his party members to approve the draft bill as it stands, defying calls from critics in the media and the judiciary to scrap measures they say will help criminals and muzzle the press.
Berlusconi says the new rules are needed to protect privacy, but the opposition accuses the government of scrambling to cover up corruption in its ranks with yet another tailor-made law.
“Only a small lobby of journalists and magistrates opposes this law, while the great majority of citizens is tired of not being able to use the phone for fear of being spied on,” Berlusconi said.
The opposition Italy of Values party began a sit-in in the Senate which they said was aimed at preventing the confidence vote taking place.
“We are protesting against a shameful measure which tramples on the rights of citizens to be informed, seriously hinders the fight against crime and the mafia, and gags the press,” said party leader Antonio Di Petro, a former high-profile prosecutor.
The journalists’ union called for “all-out, unending resistance.”
The bill, which after the Senate must return to the lower house for final approval, languished in parliament for months.
But the government quickly dusted it off after newspapers printed leaked transcripts from a high-profile graft probe into public works contracts that has tainted Berlusconi’s cabinet.
That inquiry forced Industry Minister Claudio Scajola to resign when 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, magistrates could order wiretaps only if they have serious evidence that a crime has been committed. They would have to be approved by a panel of three judges and would only last up to 75 days. Extensions would be difficult to obtain, and only in increments of three days at a time.
Special authorization would be needed to tap the phones of parliamentarians and priests. Media would be banned from publishing transcripts or summaries and even from reporting on a probe until preliminary investigations are over — something that can take years in Italy’s snail-paced justice system.
Publishers who violate the law could be fined up to 450,000 euros ($603,800), but possible jail terms for journalists were dropped after an almost unanimous outcry from the media.
“The rule of law and the media are nightmares for Berlusconi’s center-right,” said left-leaning La Repubblica, which has been highlighting in yellow print the kind of stories it would not have been allowed to run under the new law.
Another newspaper that is often critical of the government, Il Fatto, urged journalists to carry out “civil disobedience” by defying the law — which also applies to ongoing investigations — and then take it to Italy’s top court in the hope it will be declared unconstitutional.
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 over their morning espresso, sometimes involving people not implicated in any investigation.
The government says suspects should not be exposed to public disgrace before they even go on trial, and the privacy of ordinary citizens who have done nothing wrong must be protected.
Advocates of wiretaps say many high-profile arrests, particularly of elusive Mafia fugitives, would not have been possible without the help of phone intercepts.
The U.S. Justice Department has also expressed concern over the law’s effect on joint investigations of organized crime.
Editing by Philip Pullella and Diana Abdallah