Italian Journalists Strike Over Wiretap Measure

Italians won't be able to read newspapers or get their news from TV or radio, as journalists are on strike to protest a bill being pushed by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The bill would restrict police use of wiretaps in the name of protecting citizens' privacy.

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Italians can't get their news today from newspapers, TV or radio. Journalists are striking to protest a bill being pushed by the country's prime minister. That measure would restrict police use of wiretaps and the media reporting on the contents of those wiretaps. Prime Minister Berlusconi says the goal is to protect the privacy of citizens. Anti-mafia investigators say it will be a boon for organized crime. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Silvio Berlusconi owns TV networks and newspapers, but he recently urged his fellow citizens to stop reading the news.

Prime Minister SILVIO BERLUSCONI (Italy): (Through translator) Italian citizens, please go on strike. Stop buying newspapers for a while. They only tell lies. They totally disinform. They give an upside down view of reality.

POGGIOLI: Days later, Italians took to the streets to protest against the wiretap bill.

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POGGIOLI: In Rome's Piazza Navona, speakers read the list of mafiosi and corrupt politicians who never would've been arrested without wiretaps. Many demonstrators wore gags over their mouths. There were famous names: Nobel laureate Dario Fo, anti-mafia writer Roberto�Saviano�and renowned ballet dancer Carla�Fracci.

Ms. CARLA�FRACCI�(Ballet Dancer): With the mouth closed, and not with the freedom to express yourself, it's quite difficult. So we have to support them.

POGGIOLI: German filmmaker Margarethe�von Trotta also came to protest against Berlusconi.

Ms. MARGARETHE�VON TROTTA (Filmmaker): That's not the first time that we are very astonished and very much against what he's doing. But this time, really, you have to - the whole world's against him, because that's a new law you can't accept.

POGGIOLI: Critics call it a gag law and say it's aimed at protecting the prime minister himself and his cronies, several of whom are under investigation for corruption. It calls for hefty fines, over half a million dollars for publishers and jail terms for journalists who publish wire taps.

Last month, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe slammed the bill, saying it could criminalize journalists' work and undermine democratic principles and freedom of speech.

Stefano Rodota, leading jurist and Italy's first privacy commissioner, says the European Union is worried.

Mr. STEFANO RODOTA (Privacy Commissioner, Italy): I don't worry that Italy is perceived in this way, but what is happening outside Italy can help us in our fight inside our country.

POGGIOLI: If passed, the law would severely restrict police use of wiretaps and sharply reduce the time period they can be enforced. One of the loudest critics is Pietro Grasso, Italy's top anti-mafia prosecutor, speaking on a TV talk show.

Mr. PIETRO GRASSO (Prosecutor): (Through translator) Investigations have to run as long as necessary. Why do we have to cut short our wiretaps of suspects when we still need to investigate?

POGGIOLI: Italian newspapers have been highlighting articles that could not be published under the law. Even the editor of a Berlusconi-owned newspaper signed a joint statement with other editors denouncing the bill as a violation of a fundamental freedom. And despite the threat of fines and jail terms, the editors vowed they will disobey the law.

But Berlusconi is pushing for its passage, even before parliament debates the government's more pressing austerity measures.

The bill is being closely watched, even in Washington. A senior justice official recently voiced concern that restrictive wiretap rules could harm joint U.S.-Italian investigations into narco-trafficking, money laundering and terrorism.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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