Freedom in the World
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Italy's parliament approved a controversial media law in April 2004 that, critics argue, consolidates Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's hold over the media. In July 2004, parliament passed a conflict-of-interest law that seeks to address Berlusconi's dual role as the country's leading media magnate and prime minister. During European Parliament and local elections held in June, the ruling coalition of parties, the Casa delle Liberta (House of Liberties), suffered a defeat, leading to a government crisis. The country continued its steadfast support of the U.S. - led war in Iraq, keeping its 3,000 plus troops on the ground there, despite opposition at home and a number of kidnappings of Italians in Iraq.
Modern Italy begins with the mid-nineteenth century Risorgimento that brought together the various regions of the peninsula under the control of the northwestern region of Piedmont. Italy's liberal period ended abruptly with the rise to power of Benito Mussolini and the Fascist Party, which ruled the country for 20 years starting in 1922. During World War II, the country, under Mussolini, joined Germany and Japan as an Axis power, declaring war on France, Britain, and the Soviet Union and invading Greece. The Allied invasion in the South, along with the help of the anti-Fascist resistance in the North, led to Italy's eventual defeat in 1945. A referendum in 1946 replaced the monarchy with a republican form of government.
The "Clean Hands" corruption trials in the early 1990s led to the collapse of the major political parties that had dominated postwar Italian politics - the Christian Democrats, the Communists, and the Socialists. Since that time, many new parties and coalitions have emerged.
In the late 1990s, Italy began a number of institutional reforms to address a list of pressing issues, including revolving-door governments: Italy has had more than 50 governments since 1945. In 1993, a new electoral law switched the country from a pure system of proportional representation to a (mostly) plurality system in an attempt to reduce the number of political parties that can obtain seats. Other reforms have included efforts to modernize the judiciary by streamlining the prosecution of cases in the courts and reduce unnecessary legislation.
The Casa delle Liberta coalition, which won the last national elections, in May 2001, includes Berlusconi's Forza Italia, as well as the post-Fascist Allianza Nazionale and the regionalist Lega Nord. During those elections, about 85 percent of eligible voters went to the polls - a turnout that was lower than the postwar average of over 90 percent. The main opposition to the Casa delle Liberta is the leftist Ulivo (Olive Tree) coalition, which includes the former Communist Party, now called the Party of the Democratic Left (DS), as well as different Green formations and former leftist Christian Democrats. The constitution forbids the reemergence of the Fascist Party.
In December 2003, President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi invoked his little-used veto powers to stop the passage of an earlier version of the media law in parliament that allowed Berlusconi to expand his media and publishing interests. Ciampi's veto was eventually overruled and the Gasparri law was passed in late April.
Parliament passed a controversial conflict-of-interest law in July 2004 that is intended to deal with the prime minister's dual role as a media magnate and the country's top legislator. The law, which forces politicians to hand over managerial control of their companies while in office, has been criticized by the opposition because it does not compel Berlusconi to sell off any part of his huge media empire.
A corruption trial against Berlusconi resumed in April 2004 after the prime minister's immunity from prosecution was removed by the Constitutional Court in January 2004. The law granting Berlusconi and other top government officials immunity was seen by critics as simply an attempt to disrupt pending trials against the prime minister. The Constitutional Court argued that the law violated the constitution. A verdict was expected in December 2004.
Shortly after suffering losses during the local and European parliament elections in June 2004, the members of the governing coalition held talks to avoid a government crisis. The coalition had become increasingly fractious due to the diverging interests of its members and resentment by some of them towards Berlusconi's continuing conflict-of-interest problems. Since the 2001 elections, Berlusconi's Casa delle Liberta coalition has suffered losses at every election. Despite these losses, Berlusconi heads the longest-serving government since the end of World War II.
At the end of September 2004, the parliament approved legislation that will devolve control over education, health, and local policing from Rome to the country's 20 regions. The legislation will have to go through more parliamentary hurdles and might face a national referendum.
Italy kept its 3,000 troops in Iraq in the face of demands by kidnappers who seized a number of Italian citizens, killing one, a journalist. A ransom of $1 million was allegedly paid to gain the release of two Italian women hostages in September.
Hundreds of illegal immigrants arrived on coastal areas during the year. In response, the government tightened immigration restrictions that had come into force two years prior. However, in July, the Constitutional Court ruled that the restrictive immigration law violated fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution. After suffering a serious heart attack, Umberto Bossi, the leader of the anti-immigrant Lega Nord party, quit his parliamentary post for a seat in the European Parliament.
Italians can change their government democratically. Although the role of the president -who is chosen by parliament and representatives of the regions - is largely ceremonial, Italian presidents, like Mr. Ciampi, have not shied from taking sides on national political issues. The president chooses the prime minister, who is often, but not always, a member of the largest party in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. The constitution also provides for 20 subnational administrative districts. Currently, 75 percent of the 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies are elected in single-member districts while the other 25 percent are elected by proportional representation, with a 4 percent threshold. The new electoral law limits the chances of smaller parties to attain seats on their own, forcing them to align themselves with other parties in large coalitions on the left and right. In 2000, parliament approved a constitutional change that gives the estimated four million Italians abroad the right to vote, effective with the next national elections.
Corruption remains an issue in politics despite the changes in government coalitions over the past decade. Transparency International ranked Italy 42 out of 146 countries surveyed in its 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index, one of the worst rankings in Western Europe. The head of Parmalat, the Italian food conglomerate, and five other top executives were taken into police custody in late December 2003 following an investigation into large gaps in the company's accounting. A late January 2004 investigation in the case uncovered that the company had debts of around 14 billion euros in September of the previous year, close to eight times what the company's management had claimed at that time.
Freedom of speech and the press is constitutionally guaranteed. However, in Freedom of the Press 2004, Freedom House ranked the country as being only "partly free," due to the continued concentration of media power in the hands of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who, through his private media holdings and political power over the state television networks, controls 90 percent of the country's broadcast media.
In April, the Senate adopted the Gasparri law on broadcasting, which ostensibly introduces a number of reforms, like the preparation for the switchover from analogue to digital broadcasting that is due to take place in 2006. However, the law has been heavily criticized for providing measures that serve the interests of Berlusconi's media holdings. The law was initially vetoed in December by the Italian President, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who sent a five-page commentary on the law to parliament, pointing out that it undermined news pluralism by allowing the creation of "dominant positions" in the media. Crucial for Berlusconi, the law removes a previous restriction on one person owning more than two national broadcasting stations. This provision allows Retequattro, one of three television stations owned by Berlusconi's Mediaset group, to continue terrestrial broadcasting. The law runs contrary to a Constitutional court ruling in 2002 that demanded that Retequattro switch to satellite by January 2004 to ensure competition. The shift to satellite would have led to a considerable loss in the station's market value.
In response to the new law, a number of high-profile media people quit the state-run radio and television network, RAI, including its head, Lucia Annunziata, and a star television broadcaster, Lili Gruber. In addition, questions continue to be raised about the political impact of Berlusconi's control of the media. The Osservatorio di Pavia, an independent watchdog group that focuses on media issues, reported that in one month, February 2004, Berlusconi's presence on television accounted for 42 percent of the time dedicated to politicians.
A 2001 high court ruling gave the government the power to block foreign-based Internet sites if they contravene national laws. The government, however, has yet to restrict access to the Internet.
Freedom of religion is respected and guaranteed by the constitution. A revised Concordat in 1984 established the secular state in Italy. Although Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion, and the Catholic Church is granted some privileges by the state, there is no state religion. In addition, the state provides support, if requested, to other religions represented in the country. To date, the state has signed agreements with a number of religious groups and is currently finalizing an omnibus religious freedom law.
However, a new fertility law that was strongly supported by the Vatican and Catholic politicians has been criticized for being overly restrictive. The law, passed in the spring, prohibits sperm or egg donation, surrogacy, embryo research, and the screening or freezing of pre-implanted embryos. Italy's nominee to the new European Commission, Rocco Buttiglione, had to withdraw his name after controversy emerged about his conservative views on gays and women. A devout Catholic, Mr. Buttiglione had stated in October 2004 that he thought homosexuality was a "sin."
Academic freedom is respected and protected.
Italians are free to organize into social and political associations. However, a bill introduced into parliament by the conservative majority seeks to ban child protests. The new law, if it goes into effect, will fine parents up to $2,500 if they allow their minor children to participate in street protests. Between 35 and 40 percent of the workforce is unionized.
The independence of the country's judiciary continues to be undermined by long trial delays and the influence of organized crime. However, the government has vowed to institute a number of reforms, including the establishing a merit system for judicial advancement (it is now based on seniority) and having parliament set priorities for the categories of crimes to be prosecuted. The opposition parties and magistrates themselves oppose these reforms.
The law prohibits torture; however, there were reports of excessive use of force by the police. In February, a number of senior police officers were indicted with perjury, conspiracy or assault in connection with a 2001 police raid at the headquarters for the Genoa Social Forum during the G-8 summit protests. Many prisons continue to be overcrowded and antiquated, lacking, for example, adequate medical care.
The country is a major port of entry for undocumented immigrants. Large numbers of people from North Africa, the Middle East, China, and South Asia continue to arrive on the country's shores. A German captain of a ship was arrested during the summer for aiding and abetting illegal immigration. The Constitutional Court in Rome deemed that new rules in the country's two-year-old immigration law regarding the arrest and expulsion of illegal immigrants are in violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution.
A Moroccan teacher trainee was denied a job at a private nursery because she wore a headscarf. The conservative interior minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, supported the teacher and ordered the school to reverse its decision.
Women benefit from liberal maternity-leave provisions and government efforts to ensure parity in the workforce. However, violence against women continues to be a problem. In addition, there are no quotas for women in either house of parliament, although some parties do maintain them. Around 11 percent of the 630 members of the Chamber of Deputies are women. Italy is a transit point and country of destination for trafficked persons. Women are trafficked from Africa and Eastern Europe for sexual exploitation, and children from China for sweatshop labor.