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Berlusconi wins vote on wiretaps

June 11, 2010

by Guy Dinmore, published June 11 2010

Amid stormy scenes in Italy’s senate, Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right government on Thursday rammed through a bill that would restrict the use of police wiretaps and punish editors and journalists who run transcripts.

The bill was passed in the Senate on a vote of confidence that cut short debate on amendments. The text, which the prime minister says will not be modified, moves next week to the lower house where the ruling coalition has a large majority. Senators of the main opposition Democratic party walked out of the senate refusing to vote, while members of the small Italy of Values party had to be evicted after occupying government benches.

Anna Finocchiaro, senate leader for the Democrats, called the bill a “massacre for liberty” and denounced the government for hiding what she called its private use of public money while treating the public as a “blind flock of sheep”.

The government says the law is needed to protect privacy. Last month the leaking of intercepts linked to an investigation into suspected corruption in the awarding of state contracts led to the resignation of Claudio Scajola, industries minister. He denied wrongdoing.

Mr Berlusconi too has had his private conversations splashed over the newspapers, most recently when he was overheard by investigating magistrates urging an official of Rai, the state broadcaster, to stop broadcasts of programmes attacking his government.

Under the law investigating prosecutors can order wiretaps and bugging only if they have serious evidence of a crime committed. Approval by a panel of three judges is required for a limit of 75 days, while intercepting conversations of politicians and priests would have to go through a more rigorous procedure.

Anti-mafia prosecutors have lashed out at the bill. Although strictly mafia-related investigations would not be affected directly, investigators say many mafia bosses have been discovered through the wire-tapping of others, particularly involving money laundering operations.

The US Department of Justice has expressed its concern that mafia investigations in Italy will be compromised by the law.

The media would be banned from publishing transcripts or summaries of intercepts – a daily staple of Italian news – and would face restrictions on reporting investigations at a preliminary stage. Heavy fines of up to 450,000 euros and three-jail terms could be imposed on transgressors.

Franco Siddi, secretary of the National Press Federation, is calling for a one-day strike of journalists next month, while some reporters and editors have vowed to break the law.

Mr Berlusconi recently denounced the widespread use of phone-taps as imposing a “police state” on Italians. On Thursday, he demonstrated his disdain of the media by walking out of a joint press conference in Rome with Spain’s Jose Luis Zapatero, leaving a confused prime minister alone at the podium to take questions.

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