Italian newspaper La Repubblica has been sued by the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, for asking questions about his conduct which, the premier's lawyers claim, implicitly defame Berlusconi. The left-leaning daily started its campaign for answers to ten questions from the prime minister in May, when discrepancies started to emerge over his account of his relations with the now well-known 18 year-old Noemi Letizia, and the questions have evolved as rumours of scandals surrounding Berlusconi have developed.
La Repubblica editor Ezio Mauro declared in an editorial that "This is the first time that, in the memory of a free country, a politician takes a lawsuit because of questions that were asked of him." The paper is promoting a petition to protest the lawsuit, which it believes "can only be interpreted as an attempt to silence the free press." It has been signed by the FT's Lionel Barber, the Guardian's Alan Rusbridger, the Sunday Times' John Witherow and the Independent's Roger Alton, as well as Liberation's Laurent Joffrin, Javier Moreno at El Pais and Sueddeutsche Zeitung's Hans Werner Kilz. It has been reported, however, that no Italian editor is on the list.
In advance of his appearance at the WEF conference The 2015 Newsroom in Prague next week where he will be giving the keynote speech, Mauro gave the Editors Weblog an insight into his thoughts on the situation.
Editors Weblog: Berlusconi's well-known dominance of the broadcast sector of the media could undoubtedly be seen as a threat to press freedom. But until recent events, have newspapers managed to stay relatively free of his influence?
Ezio Mauro: The real anomaly is the control of the entire television universe, which is completely in the hands of the leader of a party and of the government, who controls three channels by ownership, and three by his political position. This allows for a continual adaption of the editorial landscape - eliminating inconvenient topics, or rendering them incomprehensible. For newspapers it is different, though the influence of the power of the government on the economic and financial establishment (which owns the newspapers) is very still strong. Whoever criticises the government is by definition isolated. Television channels do not launch investigations or questions. In this context, it is difficult for a type of true public opinion to form and grow that is both informed and aware.
EW: Do you think that there are more fundamental press freedom problems than Berlusconi himself in Italy?
EM: I am not talking about press freedom. I am talking about the right of citizens to know and understand, therefore to be informed: and of the duty of newspapers to inform. It is regarding this right and this duty that there are problems today.
EW: To a foreigner, Italian newspapers appear more ostensibly partisan than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Do you think that is true, and if so do you think this could be one of the reasons they become vulnerable to political attack?
EM: Was the Washington Post partisan during the Watergate investigation? I believe that the lies and contradictions of those in power open a space that journalism must fill. My objectives are not political, but journalistic, even if we are a newspaper with a clear centre-left leaning. As there is now also a right-wing press, the pluralism of newspapers is wide. Then there are dailies and weeklies that by ownership are part of the Berlusconi world, that is, a system that puts together government, party, agenda and media. Again, something that is unheard of elsewhere in the Western world.
EW: With regards to the Feltri/Fini case: do you think the stance that Il Giornale is taking with regards to house speaker Fini's actions is appropriate for a newspaper?
EM: It is a case of character assassination, as everybody has said... This attack is a punishment and a warning, making us understand the risks we should not take. Journalism, as is evident, is nothing to do with it.
EW: Is there a fear that a type of self-censorship amongst journalists could arise as a result of the threat of prosecution?
The threat of multi-million euro lawsuits brought by the richest, most powerful man in the country certainly is a form of intimidation. But attention: much more intimidating is blackmail and threats of the political-journalistic 'kombinat' using 'dossiers', invented on anonymous pieces of paper (the Boffo case) maybe even the use of secret service bombs. A frightened power wants to spread the fear, and for this he uses his newspapers. But a question arises: can you govern a democracy in the heart of Europe in 2009 by substituting policy with 'dossiers', authoritativeness with intimidation, leadership with threats and blackmail?
EW: As well as the petition on your paper's website, what action does La Repubblica intend to take in the coming weeks to raise awareness of the situation?
EM: We will inform. Report the news. Ask questions. What journalists in 'normal' countries do.
EW: Have you come across or do you expect expressions of solidarity from other Italian or European newspapers?
EM: I have read expressions of solidarity and awareness of the Italian case on the part of editors of European newspapers, all the most important, even if I have not spoken with any of them (except the editors of El Pais and Liberation during a forum in Lyon last week). Nothing else.
EW: How has the conflict with the prime minister affected La Repubblica's readership?
EM: The number of readers has grown considerably in the last three or four months. Emails and letters have also been flooding in.
EW: Assuming that there is a press freedom problem in Italy, what steps do you think must be taken to resolve it?
EM: It is necessary to resolve the conflict of interest of the head of state, to free the television system from the influence of all parties, and to ask the government to respond to public opinion. He might be able to get away with not replying to a single newspaper, but to the problems that he raises, and to the questions, he must answer.
EW: Your paper is being sued by the prime minister. Do you think he will be successful?
EM: No, I don't believe so.