Ear on Italy

Magistrates, journalists contest wiretap reform

Editorial Staff
June 26, 2008

Among Western Europe's democracies, Italy makes the most use of wiretaps-more than 100,000 times a year. As the use of wiretaps has quadrupled since 2001, the cost of listening and documenting the conversations has grown exponentially. At 220 million euro annually, it now amounts to roughly a third of the Justice Ministry's budget. Not only are there are so many wiretap transcripts, but journalists have easy access to them. Italian dailies often publish excerpts, usually those involving celebrities and politicians. Heavy and costly reliance on bugging techniques in police investigations has spurred the majority government to reform Italy's current wiretapping legislation. The country's centre-right administration recently forged ahead with a highly contested measure that would restrict wiretapping to serious criminal cases that could result in punishments of 10 years or more, and investigations of organized crime and terrorism.


The draft bill would limit phone taps to a period of three months and require authorization by a panel of magistrates. Those who conduct unauthorized wiretaps or publish transcripts would face a possible five-year prison term.


Although the idea to reform the wiretapping law received backing from Italian president Giorgio Napolitano, scores of magistrates, journalists and opposition leaders have fiercely contested the proposed changes. The head of Italy's journalists' union, Roberto Natale, reiterated journalists' criticism to the plan: ‘We're absolutely against a wiretapping bill. Privacy rights have nothing to do with it. What's at stake is the taxpayers' right to be informed'. Journalists are threatening to strike against the measure.


The head of the opposition Italy of Values party Antonio Di Pietro, a former prosecutor in the 1990s Clean Hands probes into political corruption, said Berlusconi's proposal was ‘very serious'. Not allowing the publication of transcripts was ‘like holding a trial behind closed doors', thereby preventing the media from informing the public about important investigations.


The measure would also ‘greatly reduce prosecutors' ability to probe into crimes involving pedophilia, graft, corruption, financial crimes, usury, extortion and a lot of other criminal activity, he added.

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