Italy: dozens of journalists under police protection

Political and economic interest groups as well as organised crime structures have a sustained influence on Italy’s media landscape, which is marked by media concentration.

Journalist Roberto Saviano has been under police protection since 2006, and has to move to a new location every other day.
Journalist Roberto Saviano has been under police protection since 2006, and has to move to a new location every other day.
Around two dozen journalists are under constant police protection in Italy. Not only the mafia uses heavy-handed intimidation methods against journalists like best-selling author Roberto Saviano. Far-right groups have also resorted to violence to hinder free reporting since 2017. Paolo Berizzi from La Repubblica and Nello Svaco from Avvenire are just two of a number of reporters who have been targeted.

Attempts to intimidate journalists are also becoming increasingly frequent on social media. Efforts by politicians to restrict press freedom, on the other hand, have decreased slightly, and in particular the Five Star Movement’s attacks against the press have become less frequent since it became a senior partner in the governing coalition.

Berlusconi’s enduring legacy

However, the media policy of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi it still taking its toll on press freedom in the country. The media empire he has built up since the 1980s continues to pose a threat to media pluralism. This conglomerate encompasses Italy’s largest publishing house as well as its three leading private TV channels, which between them absorb around 60 percent of all advertising revenues on the Italian market.

In 2010 the international NGO Freedom House for the first time rated Italy among those countries where the press was no longer "free" but only "partly free". The NGO explained its decision pointing on the one hand to the monopoly exerted by a handful of media companies and on the other to a tendency towards politically motivated restrictions on press freedom. In the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index Italy was ranked 46th in 2018. This is an improvement however: in 2017 it was 52nd, and in 2016, 77th on the Index.

Freedom House's assessment of Internet freedom and access in the country is also interesting: "Italy continues to lag behind some of its European Union (EU) peers when it comes to overall connectivity, although different attempts to close the digital divide have been made.” Disinformation and the general pressure on Italy's digital media landscape have eased since early 2018. However, the phenomenon of online hate speech remains widespread. Moreover, during the period under review (June 2018 to May 2019) there was a significant increase in cyberattacks, many of which aimed to hamper the country's politics".

Ongoing discussion about mergers and takeovers

Particularly during Berlusconi's four terms in office, laws were introduced that eroded press freedom. One consequence was a tightening of the libel law in 2012. The Senate passed a law under which journalists can be sent to prison for the defamation of high-ranking officials. After years of debate, another law was passed at the end of 2017 under which journalists could be sentenced to serve up to four years in prison for publishing intercepted phone calls. The legislation has been legally binding since 26 January 2018. Since then, "irrelevant" parts that have nothing to do with fact finding or the alleged offence must remain confidential, regardless of their news value. Whereas in the past the press could decide for themselves what was relevant and what wasn’t, now this is up to the lawyers.

Takeovers and mergers of media companies are a subject of endless debate in Italy. The power struggle for control of Italy's largest daily, the liberal-conservative Corriere della Sera, has been going on for years now. Major Italian companies such as car manufacturer Fiat and fashion label Tod's hold shares in RCS publishers. Since July 2016 media entrepreneur and Berlusconi protégé Urbano Cairo has controlled more than half of the shares in RCS, which as well as Corriere della Sera also owns the sports paper Corriere dello Sport, a number of tabloid papers and several men’s, cooking, gardening and travel magazines.

Two other large Italian publishing houses, Gruppo editorale L’Espresso and Editrice Italiana (Itedi), merged in April 2017. The resulting media company, Gedi is one of Italy’s largest publishing groups and owns some of the country’s leading daily newspapers including La Repubblica and La Stampa. In April 2020 the Dutch investment group Exor increased its stake in Gedi and now owns more than 50 percent. Exor, whose largest shareholder is the Agnelli family, is also a majority shareholder in car manufacturer Fiat Chrysler and the British media company The Economist Group. The new ownership structure led to immediate personnel changes in top positions at some of Gedi's media outlets.

The circulation figures of Italian newspapers have dropped by more than a third over the last decade. Most newspapers are trying to compensate for these losses by introducing payment models for their online content. They benefit from the fact that that the culture of journalistic commentary has a long tradition in Italy. Extensive commentaries are a standard feature, and the more flowery the language, the better. The Internet has reinvigorated this tradition, and there are now countless blogs, and Twitter is also very popular.

However, television is still the medium of choice for commentators, for it has by far the largest audiences. Alongside public television and Berlusconi's Mediaset, a third player, the private channel La 7, has made a name for itself and in 2013 was bought by the publisher Urbano Cairo.

World Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders): Rank 41 (2020)

Last updated: April 2020

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