Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Italy's civil liberties rating improved from 2 to 1 due to changes in the survey methodology.
Several bills introduced in parliament in 2002 were the focus of opposition protests. The first bill proposed to tackle the potential conflicts of interests of those holding public office, but the government's proposals fell short of eliminating the suspicion that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi might be using public office for private gain. Another bill, known as the Cirami law, was also passed, and required trials to be relocated if there is a "legitimate suspicion" that the judge is biased against the defendant. Opponents of the prime minister claimed that this reform was being fast-tracked through parliament, ahead of more pressing issues, in order to bring about the suspension of a trial (in which Berlusconi is accused of bribing judges in the mid-1980s) before a verdict can be reached. A third pending bill deals with broadcasting and the media and includes controversial changes to rules regarding television and press ownership, and the advertising market, areas in which Berlusconi's businesses are dominant.
Modern Italian history dates from the nineteenth-century movement for national unification. Most of Italy had merged into one kingdom by 1870. Italy sided with Germany and Austria-Hungary at the outset of World War I, but switched to side with the Allied powers during the war. From 1922 to 1943, the country was a Fascist dictatorship under Benito Mussolini, who sided with the Axis powers during World War II. A referendum in 1946 replaced the monarchy with a republican constitution, which provides for a president whose role is largely ceremonial. He is elected to a seven-year term by an assembly of members of parliament and delegates from the regional councils. The president chooses the prime minister, who is often, but not always, a member of the largest party in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament. Members of the upper house, the Senate, are elected on a regional basis.
Silvio Berlusconi's center-right coalition, Casa delle Liberta, which includes his own Forza Italia, the post-Fascist National Alliance, and the northern-nationalist Northern League, swept to power in national elections held in May 2001. Prime Minister Berlusconi's right-of-center coalition is likely to survive in office beyond 2004. Its potential longevity reflects the unprecedented size of its parliamentary majority and the unchallengeable authority of Berlusconi. The coalition won a comfortable majority of 368 out of 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 177 out of 326 in the Senate, and a strong showing for the Forza Italia gave Berlusconi firm control of his coalition.
Italy's fractious and unstable government has failed during the past several years to implement the reforms necessary to address the country's myriad political problems. (Italy has had over 50 governments since 1945.) Such reforms include over-hauling current electoral laws, which engender political instability by allowing dozens of small parties to wield disproportionate influence in parliament, and creating a framework for devolution to neutralize secessionist sentiment among northern Italians.
Italy surprised most skeptics when it joined European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) in January 1999, after years of high deficits and inflation. Accession followed a program of fiscal austerity, and as a result, the euro replaced the lira as Italy's currency. Italy is experiencing stagnant economic growth, brought on primarily by low growth in its major export markets, including Germany and France. The government's efforts to privatize state assets continues apace, although it has slowed in the past two years because of economic malaise and because many of the most profitable assets have already been sold.
Italians can change their government democratically. Citizens are free to form political organizations, with the exception of the constitutionally forbidden prewar Fascist Party. The postwar constitution, designed to prevent another Mussolini-style dictatorship, sharply restricts the powers of the executive in favor of the legislative and judicial branches of government. The result has been unstable governing coalitions, political deadlock, and heavy reliance on the referendum as a political tool.
The Italian press is free and competitive. Most of approximately 80 daily newspapers are independently owned. The main state-owned television network and the three main channels of Radio Audizioni Italiane (RAI) provide Italians with most of their news. Their boards of directors are parliament-appointed. A February 2000 law on political advertising requires broadcasters to give political adversaries equal time, bans paid political ads on national television, and requires public broadcasters to give all parties free television time at certain hours. Private broadcasters must also provide equal time to opposing parties if they choose to run political ads. Fears that the independence of the press could be compromised were raised after Berlusconi's appointment as prime minister, as he has extensive holdings in the media (television and print).
Workers may strike and bargain collectively. Some 40 percent of the workforce is unionized. The law prohibits discrimination by employers against union members and organizers. Over the last decade, relations between employees and employers have generally become less adversarial, although strike action increased in 2001.
In July 2000, the government announced plans to reform Italy's prison system, which officially holds about 7,000 more prisoners than the prisons were designed for. The plans include building new prisons, renovating existing facilities, recruiting new prison officers, and deporting prisoners from outside the EU sentenced to less than three years.
The judiciary is independent but notoriously slow and inefficient. A 1995 law allows for preventive detention as a last resort or in cases where there is convincing evidence of a serious offense, such as illegal activity involving organized crime or related to drugs, arms, or subversion. A maximum of two years is permitted for preliminary investigation. The average waiting period for a trial is about 18 months, but can exceed 2 years. A decree issued in November 2000 extends the time limit on pretrial incarceration of suspects charged with pedophilia or the prostitution of minors. It will also give judges greater discretion in extending pretrial detention up to a six-year limit. Other provisions include abolishing the plea bargain for suspects facing life imprisonment and increasing surveillance of suspects under house arrest.
Freedom of assembly and association is guaranteed by the constitution, with the exception of organizations that promote racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination. Religious freedom is protected, and the government subsidizes several religions through tax revenues. In March 2000, the government formally recognized Buddhists and Jehovah's Witnesses as official religions for the first time. Official recognition allows religions to establish their own schools and to benefit from a system in which taxpayers can donate a percentage of their income tax payment to the faith of their choice. Observers have raised concern over what appears to be an increase of xenophobia and anti-Semitism, particularly in the north. Public statements made by Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Northern League, against Muslims, homosexuals, and foreigners appear to resonate with Italians who fear that an influx of foreigners threatens national identity.
There are no restrictions on women's participation in government and politics, though few hold elective office. Women currently constitute 9.8 percent of the Chamber of Deputies and 7.7 percent of the Senate. Women enjoy legal equality in marriage, property, and inheritance rights. Foreign women are particular victims of human trafficking. Tens of thousands have been smuggled in to work as prostitutes, primarily by Albanian-organized crime rings. Often, their passports are destroyed, and they are abused in an effort to frighten them into submission. Immigration laws offer special protection to trafficked women, such as automatic six-month legal residency with the possibility of renewal. In addition, an estimated 1,200 women in 48 programs throughout the country have been given assistance in finding alternative employment.
In June the lower house of the Italian parliament passed an immigration law, known as the Bossi-Fini law, that would require non-European citizens to be finger-printed if they wish to live in Italy. The bill also makes family reunions more difficult--immigrants will only be allowed to bring in their children if they are under the age of 18. The initiative now needs approval of the Senate. Opponents of the legislation claim that such a measure in effect describes such immigrants as criminals; the defenders, led by the northern nationalist Umberto Bossi, say the measure is simply a way to keep track of immigrants. Despite outrage from some circles, the proposed law has widespread popular support.
Italian police frequently harass the Roma (Gypsy) population of Italy. In April 2002 a Rome municipal committee met to discuss plans for dismantling camp Salone, the Roma camp on the southern periphery of Rome, and to create five new camps for Roma that will be under the "constant surveillance of police." The approximately 1,200 Roma inhabitants of Salone will be either transferred to new sites authorized by the City of Rome or expelled from Italy. Expulsion from home camps is commonplace.