Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is starting legal action against newspapers in Italy and abroad, accusing the papers of defamation. The publications include La Repubblica in Italy, French weekly Nouvel Observateur and Spain's El Pais. Reuters reported that lawyers in Britain are also investigating possible cases there.
Berlusconi is suing La Repubblica for 1 million euro, for defamation caused by its ten questions addressed to the prime minister which it has published daily since 26 June, and for writing about the article in Nouvel Observateur entitled "Sex, power and lies." The French article appeared in the 6 August edition of the weekly news magazine, and discussed, as well as the prime minister's relations with various women and his wife's call for divorce, the possibility of "Russian mafia infiltration at the highest levels of the Italian state."
Journalist Giampaolo Martinotti, Repubblica editor Ezio Mauro and representatives from the paper's publisher L'Espresso have been invited to appear before a Roman tribunal. The ten questions, according to the lawyers, insinuate to the reader that the events mentioned are true.
La Repubblica, which has already itself started suing Berlusconi for defamation after he described the paper as subversive and discouraged businessmen to buy its advertising space, seems determined to fight back. Mauro has written an editorial declaring that "this is the first time in memory of a free country that a politician is suing because of questions directed at him." Mauro asserts that with this suit, Berlusconi is trying to get out of answering the questions and keep his country in the dark, "using every method to fight against freedom of the press."
Berlusconi's lawyer Niccolo' Ghedini told Reuters that La Repubblica had launched an "intolerable" campaign against the prime minister "which brings Italy into discredit, because all foreign papers repeat these offenses as if they were true."
Lawyers are suing El Pais for publishing photographs of naked guests at the prime minister's villa in Sardinia. It is not clear which British papers might be targeted, but Berlusconi has already accused his rival Rupert Murdoch of personally attacking him via the Times.
The battle between Berlusconi, himself a media mogul, and the newspapers will be an interesting one to watch: will courts decide that these are genuine cases of defamation, or attempts by a head of state to silence media criticism?