Freedom of the Press
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Freedom of the Press Scores
Key Developments in 2016:
- In May, the Council of Ministers approved Italy’s first freedom of information law; media freedom advocates gave the legislation generally positive reviews but stressed the need for proper implementation.
- In July, a court in Milan convicted an editor and journalist for Panorama magazine in a defamation case launched by the governor of Sicily, who filed charges over a 2012 article that linked him to organized crime.
- Watchdogs raised alarm about a controversial cyberbullying bill that was approved by the House of Deputies in October, noting that its broad definitions and stiff penalties could be used to curb the exercise of free speech online.
- In December, the French company Vivendi revealed its acquisition of 12 percent of Mediaset, the Italian media conglomerate, and announced intentions to increase its stake, fueling speculations that it could be planning a hostile takeover.
Italy’s media environment remained relatively open and vibrant in 2016, although several longstanding issues—including the status of defamation as a criminal offense, political influence on the public broadcaster, lack of effective legislation on conflicts of interest, and heavy concentration of media ownership—continued to pose challenges to media houses and professionals. The government took steps to address a number of weaknesses in the media environment during the year. In May, the Council of Ministers approved a long-awaited freedom of information act, which went into effect in December. Media freedom advocates welcomed the legislation—the first of its kind in Italy—but noted the need to ensure proper implementation and to improve the law’s approach toward information exemptions and recourse in the case of refusals. As part of a sweeping broadcasting reform initiative, officials also continued efforts to improve the public broadcaster’s independence, efficiency, and sustainability. Among other initiatives, legislators approved a new system for collecting television license fees, shifting to an integrated approach designed to combat payment evasion.
Italy’s criminal defamation legislation remained the target of international criticism. In July, a court found an editor and journalist for Panorama magazine guilty in a defamation case launched by the governor of Sicily, ordering them to pay €800 ($900) in fines and €45,000 ($50,000) in damages. The governor filed the suit over a 2012 article that alleged links between him and organized crime groups. Separately, in a controversial step, the House of Deputies approved a bill in October that aims to curb cyberbullying. Media freedom advocates warned that the broad definitions, low standards of proof, and steep penalties set in the legislation could be used to curb speech online, and encouraged legislators to refine these points before granting final approval. Debate was ongoing at year’s end.
The heavy concentration of ownership in Italy’s media market showed no signs of improvement, although there were some shifts. In December, the French media group Vivendi announced that it had bought a 12 percent stake in Mediaset, the Italian media giant owned by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Vivendi also stated intentions to increase its stake, prompting analysts to speculate about the possibility of a hostile takeover. As Vivendi is the largest shareholder of Telecom Italia, one of Italy’s major fixed and mobile telecommunications providers, an increase in its stake in Mediaset could serve to simply shift, rather than decrease, ownership concentration in the telecommunications market.
Legal Environment: 12 / 30
Freedoms of expression and the press are constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected. Defamation is a criminal offense, punishable by a fine of no less than €516 ($570) or six months to three years in prison. The House of Deputies approved an overhaul of these rules in 2015, but the changes had not been approved by the Senate at the close of 2016. The reform effort seeks to abolish imprisonment for journalists as a punishment for defamation, but maintains fines of up to €50,000 ($56,000) in case a journalist knowingly spreads false information. In addition to criminal charges, an alleged victim of defamation can pursue civil litigation. Preliminary mediation is mandatory in civil cases, and disputes are submitted to court (where they can take up to seven years to lead to a verdict) only when the parties fail to reach an agreement. In July, in a case tied to a 2012 article in Panorama magazine, a judge found the magazine’s editor, Giorgio Mulé, and a journalist, Antonio Rossitto, guilty of defaming the governor of Sicily and ordered €800 ($900) in fines and €45,000 ($50,000) in damages. The article had alleged connections between the governor and organized crime groups. According to Ossigeno per l’Informazione, a local press freedom watchdog, 63 journalists faced spurious legal action in 2016, compared with 88 in 2015.
A freedom of information act—Italy’s first—was approved by the Council of Ministers in May and came into effect in December. Media rights and transparency advocates had voiced concern about a number of weakness in the initial draft, but legislators addressed most criticisms in the final version. According to the law, individuals can request information from public bodies without charge, but are responsible for printing and reproduction costs. If public bodies deny access to any piece of information, they must provide a reason. An independent monitoring observatory will be tasked with overseeing the law’s implementation, and the country’s independent anticorruption authority will issue guidelines, including for cases when public bodies may provide summary information instead of full data. Watchdogs and rights groups noted that the law lists wide exemptions for information that may compromise state secrets, public order, national defense, international relations, the state’s economic and financial stability, or ongoing criminal investigations, and urged the government to refine this aspect. Furthermore, they noted that the law does not prescribe sanctions for public entities that refuse to answer requests. FOIA4Italty, a civic group that had been a major force of public engagement during the drafting of the bill, applauded the approval of the law while stressing the need to address these remaining concerns and to ensure effective implementation.
AGCOM (Autorità per le Garanzie nelle Comunicazioni) is the main regulatory body for all media industries, and is responsible for ensuring fair competitive conditions and pluralism in the news. AGCOM is an independent agency and is accountable to Parliament. The board president is appointed by the president of Italy upon the advice of the government; two of the board’s four members are elected by the Senate and two by the House of Deputies. Critics have noted that this system, which in practice results in political appointments based on party affiliation, is an impediment to AGCOM’s neutrality.
Journalists do not need a license to practice, 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. Given the close relationship between media and politics in Italy, the lack of rules on conflicts of interest for media owners who are involved in politics is a major problem. At the forefront of this problematic relationship is former prime minister Berlusconi, who owns Mediaset. He was expelled from his seat in Parliament in 2013 after being convicted of tax fraud involving Mediaset. Although he is barred from running for public office until 2019, when he will be 83 years old, he is still the leader of the main center-right party while also retaining ownership of the country’s largest media company.
Political interference in the management of RAI, the state-owned public broadcaster, has also historically been a serious problem. Legislators approved a sweeping reform of the public broadcaster—including its management structure—at the end of 2015, and implementation was ongoing in 2016. Proponents characterize the reform as shifting control of RAI away from the interests of 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 can be blocked for selling counterfeit goods, illegal video streaming, unlicensed gambling, or child pornography. In October, the House of Deputies approved a bill aimed at preventing cyberbullying. The bill, which was awaiting approval by the Senate at year’s end, stipulates that anyone can request that online service providers remove content aimed at abusing, attacking, or ridiculing an underage individual or group. Net freedom advocates criticized the bill for employing an extremely broad definition of cyberbullying, setting low standards of proof, and prescribing a heavy penalty—a €100,000 fine—for noncompliance, among other things. Discussion of possible amendments to the bill was ongoing at year’s end.
Journalists occasionally face intimidation and attacks from organized crime networks and other political or social groups. According to Ossigeno per l’Informazione, 62 journalists received verbal or written threats, 57 were physically attacked, and 4 had their equipment damaged in 2016—generally lower figures than in 2015. None of these incidents resulted in fatalities or critical injuries. Mapping Media Freedom, an organization tracking threats, violations, and limitations faced by members of the press, received 86 reports from Italy in 2016, compared with 82 in 2015. 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 in Italy, followed by the internet, newspapers, and radio. Approximately 62 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2016.
The transition from terrestrial to digital television has increased content pluralism through the creation of a high number of new channels. Italian news agencies, which provide most news content to the media, are free from government influence.
Media ownership is highly concentrated. Legally, no broadcaster is allowed to control more than 20 percent of television and radio stations or more than 20 percent of the total revenue from the entire media industry, though joint ownership of broadcast and print media has been permitted since 2012. 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 2016 report, almost 90 percent of total revenues in the television sector and more than 40 percent of total revenues in the communications sector are held by only three operators: Sky Italia (owned by the American corporation 21st Century Fox), Mediaset (owned by Berlusconi), and RAI (the public broadcaster). Mediaset owns several television channels, the country’s largest magazine publisher, and the largest advertising company. Berlusconi also controls the largest book publisher in the country, and his brother owns one of the national major daily newspapers, Il Giornale. In December, the French media conglomerate Vivendi revealed that it had acquired a 12 percent stake in Mediaset and planned to increase its ownership to as much as a fifth of the company. The announcement led analysts to suspect that Mediaset may become subject to a hostile takeover as party of Vivendi’s strategy to build a transnational content company in Europe. However, Berlusconi’s holding company, Fininvest, still owns 40 percent of Mediaset’s shares. Vivendi had previously bought a 24 percent stake in Italy’s former national telephone monopoly, Telecom Italia, becoming its biggest shareholder. If it continues, Vivendi’s expansion of shares in Mediaset could thus signal a shift, rather than a decrease, of ownership concentration in the telecommunications market.
The publishing sector is more fragmented, featuring a few large and many smaller groups, especially in local newspapers and specialist magazines. In March, the publishing companies of two of the three most widely distributed paid dailies—La Repubblica and La Stampa—announced a merger that would create a new company controlling more than 20 percent of the Italian print news market. As a result of the merger, the two largest newspaper publishers (Gruppo L’Espresso and RCS Mediagroup) will account for a combined 45 percent of total sector revenue. The merger is set to be finalized in 2017. It received approval from the media regulator in October, and will require approval from the country’s antitrust authority as well.
In 2016, the government changed the system for payment of television license fees, shifting to an integrated system in which owners of television sets pay the fee as part of their energy bills, rather than through a separate manual transaction. Notoriously lax controls under the previous system had significantly hampered RAI’s financial standing, with experts estimating that as much as 30 percent of households neglected to pay the license fee. The reform is expected to curb evasion and place RAI on stronger financial footing.
In 2016, newspapers continued to see declining sales and revenues. According to AGCOM, between 2000 and 2016, average daily newspaper sales fell from 6 million to below 3 million. Many newspapers depend on public subsidies. In October, Parliament approved new legislation aimed at reforming access to public funds. Among other things, the legislation sets limits on the funds available to enterprises and bars newspapers belonging to political parties, political movements, and interest groups from receiving subsidies.