Freedom of the Press
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Italy’s media environment is relatively open and vibrant. However, the media still faced a number of challenges in 2015, including the continued status of defamation as a criminal offense, political influence at the public broadcaster, lack of effective legislation on conflicts of interest, and highly concentrated media ownership.
- In June, the lower house of Parliament approved legislation that would abolish imprisonment as a penalty for journalists found guilty of defamation, though the measure had yet to pass the Senate at year’s end.
- In December, lawmakers adopted a reform of the public broadcaster’s governance structure that was expected to reduce the influence of parliamentary parties.
Legal Environment: 12 / 30
Freedoms of expression and the press are constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected.
In April 2015, Italy passed an antiterrorism law that could indirectly affect the work of journalists. It criminalizes online terrorist recruitment and the endorsement or incitement of terrorism online, allows public prosecutors to compile blacklists of terrorist websites to be blocked or taken down, and requires service providers to retain user metadata for two years. In July, a parliamentary committee released a legally nonbinding declaration of internet rights that experts and activists hope will be respected by lawmakers in future legislation. The declaration stipulates guidelines on issues such as internet access, net neutrality, privacy, anonymity, and the right to be forgotten, among other provisions.
Defamation is a criminal offense, punishable by a fine of no less than €516 ($580) or six months to three years in prison. In June 2015, the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Parliament, approved legislation that would abolish imprisonment for journalists as a punishment for defamation, but maintain fines of up to €50,000 ($55,900) for those who knowingly spread false information. The size of these fines was seen as a potential threat, and cause for self-censorship, for journalists working at small publishers or as freelancers. The bill required approval in the Senate to become effective, but at the end of 2015 this was still pending. In addition to criminal charges, an alleged victim of defamation can pursue civil litigation, though preliminary mediation is mandatory and the disputes are submitted to court only when the parties do not reach an agreement; cases can take five to seven years to reach a verdict in the courts. According to Ossigeno per l’Informazione, a local press freedom watchdog, 88 journalists were targeted with spurious legal actions in 2015.
Italy does not have a freedom of information law, relying instead on a patchwork of scattered provisions. In August 2015, Parliament authorized the government to legislate on various public administration reforms, one of whose stated objectives was to guarantee that every citizen can access all data and documents of public administrations. At the end of 2015, however, the government had not yet approved these reforms.
AGCOM (Autorità per le Garanzie nelle Comunicazioni) is the main regulatory body for all media industries in Italy, tasked with ensuring fair competitive conditions and pluralism in the news. According to the law, AGCOM is an independent agency that is accountable to Parliament. The board president is appointed by the president of Italy on the advice of the government; two of the four members are elected by the Senate, and two by the Chamber of Deputies. This system, which in practice results in political appointments based on party affiliation, has often been criticized as damaging AGCOM’s neutrality.
Journalists do not need a license to practice in general, but they do need a license to work as full-time professionals with one of the major media outlets. Obtaining a license requires passing a professional qualification test after serving as an intern for at least 18 months or attending a two-year accredited school of journalism.
Political Environment: 10 / 40
Political influence on the media is a serious challenge in Italy. Major concerns include the lack of a law to properly regulate conflicts of interest and political influence on the governance of RAI, the public broadcaster.
The issue of conflicts of interest is troubling given the close relationships between media businesses and politicians in Italy. In November 2013, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was expelled from Parliament as a result of his conviction on tax fraud charges related to his media conglomerate, Mediaset. Although under the law Berlusconi will not be allowed to run for public office until 2019, when he will be 83 years old, he is still both the leader of the main center-right party and the owner of Italy’s largest media company.
Political interference in the management of RAI has also undermined media freedom in Italy. In December 2015, Parliament approved a sweeping reform of the public broadcaster’s governance that created the position of a managing director with broad executive powers. While the government proposes a candidate, the managing director is elected and can be removed by the board. Of the board’s seven members, four will be elected by Parliament, two by the government, and one by employees. The board, which reports to a parliamentary committee every six months, elects a chairperson from among its members, tasked with external relations and internal supervision. The reform was characterized as shifting control of RAI away from the various political parties in Parliament and toward the government.
Censorship of media content is generally not a concern. Although the internet is largely unrestricted, websites are blocked for offering counterfeit goods, illegal video streaming, unlicensed gambling, or child pornography.
Journalists occasionally face intimidation and attacks from organized crime networks and other political or social groups. According to Ossigeno per l’Informazione, 119 journalists received verbal or written threats, 54 were physically attacked, and 12 had their equipment damaged in 2015. None of these incidents resulted in fatalities or critical injuries. Several reporters live under police protection due to their work on organized crime.
Economic Environment: 9 / 30
Television is the most popular source of information, followed by the internet, newspapers, and radio. In 2015, the internet penetration rate reached nearly 66 percent.
As a result of the transition from terrestrial to digital television, content pluralism has been enhanced through the creation of many new channels. The print sector features dozens of daily newspapers, both national and local. Italian news agencies, which provide the majority of information content to the media, have always been free from the government’s influence. Ansa, the oldest news agency, is a cooperative company exclusively composed of newspaper publishers, while the others are private corporations.
Italy suffers from an unusually high concentration of media ownership. The law establishes that no broadcaster should control more than 20 percent of television and radio stations or more than 20 percent of the total revenues from the entire media industry. At the end of 2012, a provision of the law that banned the joint ownership of broadcast and print media was removed. Several international bodies have repeatedly pressed their concerns about the inadequacy of these norms and the negative effects of ownership concentration.
According to AGCOM’s 2015 annual report, only three operators account for almost 90 percent of total revenues in the television sector: Sky Italia (owned by the American corporation 21st Century Fox), Mediaset (owned by Berlusconi), and RAI (the public broadcaster). The publishing sector is more fragmented, featuring a few large publishing groups and numerous smaller owners, especially in local newspapers and specialist magazines. However, two of the main publishing groups, Gruppo L’Espresso and RCS Mediagroup, have a combined share of 40 percent of the market. Newspapers have experienced declines in their sales and advertising revenue as part of a long-term trend. Many papers, often tied to specific parties or political groups, receive public subsidies, and in September 2015 Parliament began discussing a reform that would rule out public funding for newspapers linked to political organizations.
Berlusconi remains the main shareholder of Mediaset, which owns several television channels, the country’s largest magazine publisher, Mondadori, and Publitalia, Italy’s largest advertising company. In addition, one of the country’s major daily newspapers, Il Giornale, is owned by Berlusconi’s brother. In October 2015, Mondadori agreed to buy its main competitor in book publishing, Rizzoli, from RCS Mediagroup. Although the antitrust authority would be able to veto some aspects of the deal, the acquisition of Rizzoli could push Mondadori’s market share in book publishing from 27 percent to 40 percent.