Berlusconi vows to push through law this summer

The Italian media is up in arms after Prime Minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi pushed a controversial bill through the Italian senate restricting the use of police wiretaps and punishing outlets that publish leaked wiretap transcripts.

Left-leaning paper La Repubblica ran an all-white front page in protest on June 11, the day after the vote. Milan daily Corriere Della Sera called the bill “a dark page for Italian lawmaking,” and Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Italia paybox aired a black banner in protest above its anchors on the SKY-TG24 news channel.

There was no such reaction from the conservative Berlusconi’s own Mediaset network or from pubcaster RAI, over which the TV tycoon-turned-pol holds sway.

The anti-wiretapping bill, which must now clear its final hurdle in the Lower House where Berlusconi has a wide majority, requires three judges instead of one to approve wiretapping a suspect’s phone, limits the number of days for a wiretap, and requires a special authorization to listen in on pols and priests.

Journalists and news outlets will face fines of up to $550,000 and even jail for publishing wiretapped material.

The move to muzzle comes despite the Italian judiciary’s use of wiretaps to fight crime, especially anti-Mafia operations.

The U.S. Justice Dept. has also expressed concern over the law’s effect on joint probes of organized crime.

Wiretaps leaked to the press have helped blow the lid on a slew of scandals, including Berlusconi’s sexual escapades, and a corruption probe into public works contracts that has tainted his government and forced Industry Minister Claudio Scaiola to resign in May.

An estimated 120,000 phone lines were intercepted last year, and Italians have become used to reading leaked transcripts of often embarrassing phone conversations over their espresso, such as Berlusconi’s 2007 chat with a RAI exec, asking him to consider casting a showgirl in a skein produced by the pubcaster.

Berlusconi’s senate whip Maurizio Gasparri has defended the bill by saying it ends “trial by the media.”

Earlier this month, European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding warned that she is monitoring developments on this law to make sure the final version does not violate EU standards for freedom of the press.

Undeterred, Berlusconi pledged to have the bill approved as it stands before the Italo Parliament goes on summer break in August.

The first victim of the crackdown would likely be a documentary about Berlusconi’s love life, “La Dama e il cavaliere” (The Lady and the Knight), by helmer and investigative journalist Franco Fracassi. It uses several taped conversations, including a recording made by a call girl who spent the night in Berlusconi’s Rome residence. Berlusconi has denied allegations that he paid for sex.

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