More than 100,000 people attended a rally in support of press freedom in Rome on 3 October at which journalists, unionists and well-known performers took it in turns to address the crowd and condemn Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s grip on the media. Gomorra author Roberto Saviano, who went with a police guard because of mafia threats to this life, stressed the importance of an independent press that is free to investigate any subject.
Among those invited to take the microphone was Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard, who said the rally was “the biggest demonstration in defence of press freedom ever held in the world” and warned that Berlusconi was very close to being added to the Reporters Without Borders list of Predators of Press Freedom.
Accompanied by Domenico Affinito, the vice-president of the Reporters Without Borders Italian section, he urged the Italian people to “join forces to defend your right of access to freely-reported news” and to “demand that the European Union prevent Mr. Berlusconi from continuing to behave as he is with impunity.”
At a news conference in Rome the previous day with Viva Zapatero director Sabina Guzzanti, Julliard had called on Berlusconi to put a stop to his attacks and lawsuits against the press and voiced his support for the media that have been targeted by the Italian leader.
“Berlusconi is on the verge of being added to our list of Predators of Press Freedom,” Julliard announced. “This would be a first for a European leader. We are also about to release the latest version of our press freedom index and Italy has every chance of being ranked last among the European Union member countries.”
Berlusconi has been stepping up his harassment of the media and his attacks on press freedom in recent weeks. He has brought a 1-million-euro libel action against the newspaper La Repubblica because it has been pressing him for two months to respond to questions about his private life, in particular his relationships with a teenage girl and female escorts who say they have attended parties at his villas in Rome and Sardinia.
At the same time, the daily L’Unità is being sued for 3 million euros over its coverage of alleged corruption in connection with receptions organised for the prime minister.
Not content with trying to impose a positive and upbeat coverage of his activities on the state-owned media and the media owned by his Mediaset press empire, Berlusconi is now trying to dictate the coverage of the independent Italian media and international media. Lawsuits have been brought against the Spanish daily El País over photos of one of his parties and against the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur over a report headlined “Sex, power and lies” about the Russian mafia’s alleged infiltration into the leadership of the Italian government.
Berlusconi is also considering suits against Rupert Murdoch’s English-language newspapers, which could add to the conflict of interests arising from the fact that he is Italy’s premier and a media magnate at the same time.
At the initiative of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe and Niccolò Rinaldi, an Italian MEP affiliated to this group, the European Parliament has scheduled a debate about freedom of the press and information in Italy for its 7 October plenary session. MEPs from the leading political groups intend to use the debate to make it clear that the situation in Italy is of concern to the entire union. It could result in a draft resolution that would be put to a vote at the plenary session in Strasbourg on 19-22 October.