Italy: threats from the mafia and politicians

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.

The L'Espresso media group publishes La Repubblica, La Stampa and Il Secolo XIX.
The L'Espresso media group publishes La Repubblica, La Stampa and Il Secolo XIX.
20 journalists are currently under permanent police protection in Italy. Not only the mafia is using heavy-handed intimidation methods against journalists like bestselling author Roberto Saviano. Far-right groups have also resorted to violence to stop free reporting since 2017. And even Italian politicians are hampering the work of the press. Firstly, the press is the primary target of the verbal vitriol of the founder of the Five Star Movement, Beppo Grillo. Secondly, it is still suffering the consequences of the media policy pursued by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The business network he has been building up since the 1980s still poses a threat to media pluralism. His media empire includes Italy’s largest publishing house as well as the three largest private TV channels, which between them siphon off around 60 percent of all advertising revenue 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.

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. carrying prison sentences for journalists who publish tapped phone conversations 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 new media company, Gedi - one of Italy’s largest publishing groups – owns some of Italy's most important daily newspapers including La Repubblica and La Stampa. Besides entrepreneur Carlo De Benedetti, the main shareholder is the investment company Exor, which is owned by the Agnelli family. Exor is also a majority shareholder in car manufacturer Fiat Chrysler and is the company with the highest annual turnover in Italy. The group’s tax domicile is now in The Netherlands.

The media crisis has led to a steady decline in the circulations of Italian newspapers, with a drop of at least 33 percent over the past ten years. Most newspapers are trying to compensate for these losses by introducing payment models for their online content. One positive aspect is that the culture of journalistic commentary has a long tradition in Italy. Extensive commentaries are the order of the day, and the more flowery the language, the better. The Internet has prompted a revival of this tradition, and there are now countless blogs.

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.

Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders):
Rank 46 (2018)

Last updated: May 2018
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