Italy | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2006

2006 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


A political crisis enveloped Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in April 2005 when one of his coalition partners left the government and another threatened to do the same. After the London bombings in July by Islamic extremists, Italy's parliament approved a new antiterrorism law that facilitated the expulsion of Islamic militants in the country. In April, parliament ratified the new European Union (EU) constitution, becoming the first founding member state to do so.

Modern Italy began 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 reducing unnecessary legislation in parliament.

The House of Liberties coalition, which won the last national elections, in May 2001, includes Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, as well as the post-Fascist National Alliance, the regionalist Northern League, and other smaller parties. The elections in 2001 saw a drop in voter participation; 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 House of Liberties is the center-left Union Coalition, which was formed in October 2004 and includes, among other parties, the United in the Olive Tree, a coalition of the two main parties of the center-left (the Democratic Left and the Daisy Alliance), the far-left Communist Renewal, and the Union of Democrats for Europe. The constitution forbids the reemergence of the Fascist Party.

In mid-April 2005, a political crisis enveloped Berlusconi when the center-right Union of Christian Democrats (UDC) left his government. His main coalition partner, the rightist National Alliance, also threatened to quit. The departure of the UDC was sparked by the crushing defeat of Berlusconi's Forza Italia party in regional elections earlier in the month. Berlusconi, who was elected in 2001 and had maintained the longest-serving postwar cabinet, eventually formed a new government by the end of the month. In October 2005, Romano Prodi, a former European Commission president and Italian prime minister, won primary elections for the Center-Left's prime ministerial candidate by a wide margin.

In November 2005, the Senate approved a controversial bill paving the way for the first constitutional reform in 60 years. The bill, which was championed by the regionalist Northern League, will eventually devolve considerable powers to the country's 20 regions, reduce the number of MPs in both houses, and strengthen the power of the prime minister. Opponents argued that the bill will only widen the already pronounced economic gap between the wealthy North and poorer South.

Relations between the United States and Italy were strained over two international incidents during the year. In March, an Italian secret service agent was shot by U.S. soldiers at a checkpoint in Iraq just moments after he had rescued an Italian hostage. Italian and American investigators disagreed over major issues leading to the incident; the soldiers were eventually cleared of any wrongdoing over the killing of the agent, and Gianfranco Fini, the Italian foreign minister, called for a separate Italian inquiry into the incident. Nevertheless, in July 2005, the lower house of parliament approved funding for the 3,000 troops still stationed in Iraq.

In another incident, Italian courts in July issued 19 arrest warrants for alleged CIA agents accused of abducting an Islamic cleric in Milan in 2003. The abduction of the cleric, who was allegedly flown to Egypt for interrogation and tortured, is believed to be part of the controversial U.S. antiterrorism policy known as "extraordinary rendition"; none of the suspects were arrested.

The outgoing head of the Italian Red Cross admitted to Italian journalists that the Red Cross had treated four Iraqi insurgents in exchange for the release of two Italian aid workers, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, who had been held for three weeks. The exchange had been kept a secret from the United States, which has opposed paying ransoms for kidnappers in Iraq.

After the London bombings in July 2005 by Islamic extremists, parliament approved a new antiterrorism law that includes surveillance of the internet and phone networks, interrogation of suspects without lawyers being present, imposition of prison sentences and fines for persons who purposely hide their faces in public, and implementation of more expeditious methods for expelling illegal immigrants who pose a security threat to the country. A suspected Islamic extremist and a Muslim cleric, who were both accused on separate occasions of being a "danger to national security," were expelled from the country under the new antiterrorism laws. One of the suspects of the London bombings, Hussain Osman, was arrested in Rome in July and extradited in September to the United Kingdom. He was arrested on a new European Arrest Warrant, which was introduced to EU members to facilitate the extradition of suspects of serious crimes, like terrorism, kidnapping, and illicit weapons trafficking, between member states.

In April, Italy's parliament ratified the new EU constitution, becoming the first founding member state to do so. However, shortly after the French and Dutch rejection of the constitution-in May and June, respectively-two ministers from the euroskeptic Northern League called for a return to the lira. In June, Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Northern League, made his first public address since suffering a heart attack in 2004.

Much of the country went into mourning after the death of Pope John Paul II on April 2; he was 84 and had led the Roman Catholic Church for 26 years.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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 the current Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, have not shied away 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. Deputies serve for five-year terms. The Senate consists of 315 seats, with members also serving five years.

The House of Liberties coalition is currently in power. The new electoral law of 1993 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 order to appease the interests of smaller parties, the current government in 2005 proposed changes to the law that would increase the number of seats allocated by proportional representation. The law was passed by the Chamber of Deputies in October 2005. The opposition Union strongly opposes such changes. 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 in 2006.

Corruption remains an issue in politics despite the changes in government coalitions over the past decade. Transparency International ranked Italy 40 out of 159 countries surveyed in its 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index, one of the worst rankings in Western Europe. In September 2005, Calisto Tanzi, founder of the Italian dairy company Parmalat, went on trial on charges of market rigging, misleading Italy's stock market regulator, and providing false accounting information. A January 2004 investigation into Parmalat 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.

In September 2005, the government announced plans to reform the central bank, the Bank of Italy, after revelations that the governor, Antonio Fazio, had improperly favored an Italian bank over a Dutch bank in the takeover battle for another Italian bank. Fazio has been asked by the government to step down, but has so far refused to do so. The European Commission announced plans in November to take legal action against the Bank of Italy over its handling of recent mergers.

Freedom of speech and the press is constitutionally guaranteed. However, Italy continues to suffer from a 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 2004, the Senate adopted the Gasparri law on broadcasting, which ostensibly introduced a number of reforms, including 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 extensive media holdings. For example, the antitrust limits set by the law would enable Berlusconi to continue to dominate the private media market. In addition, the law removed a previous restriction on one person's owning more than two national broadcasting stations, allowing Retequattro, one of three television stations owned by the Berlusconi-dominated Mediaset group, to continue terrestrial broadcasting. However, shortly after Berlusconi's poor showing in the April 2005 elections, Finivest, the company at the apex of Berlusconi's business empire, reduced its stake in Mediaset from 50.9 to 34.3 percent, minimizing his control of the media giant. The move, according to The Guardian, was intended to boost Berlusconi's image for the upcoming elections in spring 2006.

In January 2005, a court in Rome condemned the Italian public broadcaster RAI for the removal of a TV journalist, Michele Santoro, in 2002. Santoro was one of three journalists critical of the government who were removed from RAI for alleged "criminal use of public television." Parliament has still not passed a proposed bill that will abolish prison sentences for libel. After the London bombings in July 2005 by Islamic extremists, parliament approved a new antiterrorism law that includes surveillance of the internet and phone networks. The law allows the government to compile a list of mobile phone users to help the police investigating suspected terrorist crimes.

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 but has yet to pass an omnibus religious freedom law. 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 in 2004 sought to ban child protests. The new law, if it goes into effect, will fine parents up to $2,500 if they allow their children under 12 years of age to participate in street protests. Despite this, civil society remains robust. Between 35 and 40 percent of the workforce is unionized. In November 2005, the country was paralyzed by a national strike called by the three leading unions in protest over the government's proposed cuts in the 2006 budget. In December 2004, a similar nationwide strike against the government's economic policies-which included then plans for an $8 billion cut in public sector spend-ing-crippled the country for a day. The plans for cuts were in response to a European Commission's warning for Italy to reduce its public debt, which is the third largest in the world.

The independence of the country's judiciary continues to be undermined by long trial delays and the influence of organized crime. The 2005 U.S. State Department's human rights report states that trial delays are caused, in part, by the lack of any effective limits on the length of pretrial investigations, the large number of minor offenses included in the penal code, unclear and contradictory legal provisions, and insufficient resources, including an inadequate number of judges. The courts also have the ability to determine when a law's statute of limitations applies. In December 2004, judges dropped bribery charges filed in 1999 against Berlusconi for events that occurred in 1991. The charges were dropped on the grounds that the statue of limitations had expired.

Despite legal prohibitions against torture, there were reports of excessive use of force by the police, particularly against illegal immigrants. The brutality trial of 75 people, including some of Italy's most senior police officers, began in October 2005. The defendants are accused of orchestrating and participating in a campaign of brutality against protestors at the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001.

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 report by Amnesty International alleges that illegal immigrants in Italy are subject to abuse, as people are held in overcrowded and unhygienic holding centers and denied access to lawyers and experts, making it impossible for them to challenge detention or deportation orders. In March, Italy repatriated 180 boat people to Libya from the island of Lampedusa, off the coast of North Africa, sparking the ire of human rights groups that argued the move went against Italian and international law. According to Amnesty International, the action breached the UN Refugee Convention by not allowing people with a valid asylum claim to be properly assessed.

Strict fertility laws, strongly supported by the Vatican and Catholic politicians, remain in effect in the country after a referendum in June 2005 for relaxing the laws failed to reach the 50 percent turnout needed to be valid. The laws prevent sperm and egg donations and ban screening embryos for disease. Italian bishops and the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI had encouraged people to boycott the referendum on moral grounds.

Women benefit from liberal maternity-leave provisions and government efforts to ensure parity in the workforce. Women also have considerable educational opportunities. However, violence against women continues to be a problem. Around 11 percent of the 630 members of the Chamber of Deputies are women.

Italy is a destination and transit country for trafficking of women and children for sexual and labor exploitation. Police arrested 70 people in Italy, Greece, and Turkey accused of smuggling Chinese workers into Italy. Many of the illegal immigrants are forced into involuntary servitude in Chinese workshops in the central cities of Prato and Florence. The police also arrested an Italian-Bulgarian human trafficking ring that was accused of selling newborn babies to childless couples. The country did, however, make efforts to tackle the problem of human trafficking in 2004. The government assisted victims with protection and reintegration aid and conducted public awareness campaigns to increase prevention.