Journos strike over Berlusconi law
Rome - Most Italian newspapers and news bulletins closed down for the day on Friday as journalists went on strike over government plans to restrict reporting based on material gained from police wiretaps.
The issue has galvanised opposition to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at a time when he faces a split in his centre-right coalition and a fight to pass a €25bn austerity package aimed at shoring up Italy's strained public finances.
The government says the wiretap law is needed to protect the privacy of individuals from arbitrary investigation but critics say it will hamper both the fight against organised crime and press reporting on corruption.
The bill, due to be voted on in parliament on July 29, would tighten conditions under which magistrates can order a wiretap and ban newspapers from using transcripts until preliminary investigations are complete, something which can take years.
FNSI, the main Italian journalists' union, said the legislation would "severely limit the right of citizens to know how judicial investigations are proceeding, imposing serious limitations on the free circulation of information."
Among the few papers on newsstands were Il Giornale, owned by the prime minister's brother, and Libero, a pro-Berlusconi daily which said that "the true obstacles to justice are uncontrolled wiretaps."
Italian newspapers regularly carry transcripts from police wiretaps before they are produced as evidence in court and have exposed several high-level corruption cases with such material.
In May, Industry Minister Claudio Scajola was forced to resign after the press published evidence that his luxury Rome apartment overlooking the Colosseum had been paid for in part by a property entrepreneur jailed for corruption.
The wiretap issue has sparked widespread protests and deepened the open acrimony between Berlusconi and his nominal ally Gianfranco Fini, speaker of the lower house and co-founder with Berlusconi of the ruling People of Liberty party.
"A great democratic country needs strong, free and authoritative news services," Fini said this week in remarks that were widely interpreted as a dig at Berlusconi.
The two centre-right leaders exchange regular barbs through the media. There has been near-daily newspaper speculation that their enmity could destroy the coalition, forcing the appointment of a new government or early elections.
The rivalry has leaked into the battle that Berlusconi faces to push an austerity package through parliament in the face of opposition from groups ranging from the unions to cash-strapped regional governments.
Berlusconi was due to meet regional leaders on Friday in a bid to soothe tensions but he and Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti have pledged not to reduce the overall scale of the measures, including spending cuts and state pay freezes.
The prime minister, whose approval rating dropped nine points to 41% over the past six weeks, according to a survey in the Corriere della Sera newspaper this week, has said he will resign if parliament rejects the measures.
He has called confidence votes in the Senate next week and the lower house of parliament before the end of the month.