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Italy's Government Tries To Limit Wiretap Powers

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Italy's Government Tries To Limit Wiretap Powers


Italy's Government Tries To Limit Wiretap Powers

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And in Italy, the prime minster is pushing a bill that would severely restrict the use of police wiretaps. Silvio Berlusconi says it would protect the privacy of citizens, but it also imposes harsh jail terms on journalists who report the contents of bugged conversations.

That has free speech advocates up in arms, even as prosecutors are predicting that it would undermine efforts to combat organized crime and terrorism. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

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SYLVIA POGGIOLI: As fans of the TV series "The Wire" well know, we live in 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 narco-trafficking, money laundering and terrorism.

Assistant Attorney General LANNY BREUER (Department of Justice): From a prosecutor's point of view, we don't want anything to occur that prevents the Italians from doing as good a job as they've in the past.

POGGIOLI: Nevertheless, the government is pressing ahead, and the bill goes before the Senate next week.

Maria Elisabetta Casellati is a member of Berlusconi's party.

Ms. MARIA ELISABETTA CASELLATI (The People of Freedom Party): (Through Translator) It's a good draft that balances the right to investigate using wiretaps and the right to privacy.

POGGIOLI: Prime Minister Berlusconi is a media mogul, who, along with some members of his Cabinet, is under pressure from several corruption investigations. His critics say he wants to stop embarrassing transcripts from appearing in the media.

Stefano Rodota is a leading jurist and was Italy's first privacy commissioner.

Professor STEFANO RODOTA (Italy's First Privacy Commissioner): 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, and so on. This is an attack to what in the U.S. is called the free speech of the First Amendment.

POGGIOLI: One provision of the bill has been dubbed with name of the call girl who, last year, made public tape recordings of her encounter in bed with Berlusconi. That 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, details some of the bill's restrictions.

Dr. GIUSEPPE CASCINI (Chairman, National Magistrates Association ): (Through Translator) 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.

POGGIOLI: 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 the bill be scrapped.

Even Vittorio Feltri, editor of the Berlusconi-owned Il Giornale - usually blatantly pro-government - blasted what the media calls the gag bill.

Mr. VITTORIO FELTRI (Editor, Il Giornale): (Through Translator) With the pretext of protecting the right to privacy, this bill violates the right of freedom of speech, which is protected by our constitution.

POGGIOLI: 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. In Italy, that could mean a media blackout 10 years long. This would violate a fundamental freedom, the statement said. And despite the threat of going to jail, editors vowed they'll not accept any gag order and will disobey the law.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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