In the name of protecting citizens' privacy, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is pushing a bill that would severely restrict police use of wiretaps and impose harsh jail terms on journalists who report the contents of bugged conversations. But free speech advocates are up in arms, and prosecutors say it would undermine efforts to combat organized crime and terrorism.
As fans of the TV series The Wire well know, this is an era where most criminals communicate not in person but electronically, and wiretaps are vital to gain access to the secret world of crime.
But if the Berlusconi government gets its way, Italian investigators will virtually be deprived use of electronic surveillance.
Last week, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer voiced concern that restrictive wiretap rules could harm joint U.S.-Italian investigations into narcotrafficking, money laundering and terrorism.
"From a prosecutor's point of view, we don't want anything to occur that prevents Italians from doing as good a job as they have in the past," Breuer said.
Nevertheless, the government is pressing ahead, and the bill goes before the Senate next week.
Maria Elisabetta Casellati, a member of Berlusconi's party, strongly defends the bill. "It's a good draft that balances the right to investigate using wiretaps and the right to privacy," she said.
Berlusconi, a media mogul, is under pressure — along with some members of his Cabinet — from several corruption investigations. And Stefano Rodota, a leading jurist and Italy's first privacy commissioner, said Berlsconi wants to stop embarrassing transcripts from appearing in the media.
"The real aim of this law is to control all media, avoiding any publications of information about what judges are discovering on criminals, financial affairs, etc.," Rodata said. "This is an attack on what in the U.S. is called free speech of the First Amendment."
One provision of the bill has been dubbed with the name of the call girl who last year made public tape recordings of her encounter in bed with Berlusconi. The provision says penalties will be imposed on anyone making unauthorized film or audio recordings.
The bill has led to a mass mobilization of prosecutors who say many high-profile mafia bosses and corrupt civil servants would not have been arrested under the new legislation.
Giuseppe Cascini, chairman of the National Magistrates Association, detailed some of the bill's restrictions.
"You can't use the content of one wiretap in another investigation. If we hear two people planning a murder, that wiretap cannot be used to investigate that murder. You can't bug the inside of a car or cafes, trains or offices unless you can prove a crime is being committed there. The result is that I can virtually no longer investigate crimes," he said.
The bill, which includes hefty fines for media owners and prison terms for journalists, has unified Italy's highly polarized media. In an unprecedented meeting by teleconference, editors of all major papers joined forces and demanded that the bill be scrapped.
Even Vittorio Feltri, editor of the Berlusconi-owned Il Giornale — usually blatantly pro-government — blasted what the media is calling the "gag bill."
"With the pretext of protecting the right to privacy," Feltri said, "this bill violates the right of freedom of speech which is protected by our Constitution."
In a joint statement, newspaper editors said if the bill passes, it will no longer be possible to report on police investigations until the opening of a trial, and in Italy that could mean a media blackout 10 years long. This would violate a fundamental freedom, the statement said.
Despite the threat of going to jail, editors vowed that they will not accept any gag order and will disobey the law.