Freedom in the World
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Italy received an upward trend arrow due to increased freedom of the press following Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s exit from office.
Romano Prodi’s center-left Union bloc narrowly won parliamentary elections in April 2006, putting an end to Silvio Berlusconi’s long premiership. Berlusconi, whose leadership was marred by his domination of the country’s broadcast media, had overseen the longest-serving Italian government since World War II. The voting was the first to be held since electoral reforms reinstated proportional representation for the legislature. In a June referendum, voters overwhelmingly rejected a reform measure sponsored by the previous government that would have, among other things, strengthened the role of the country’s 20 regions. The following month, Italy won soccer’s World Cup, but its own top league was mired in a match-fixing scandal. Also in July, the lower house approved a reduction in sentences for minor crimes; a move that considerably lowered the country’s prison population.
Modern Italy emerged from the mid-nineteenth-century Risorgimento, a nationalist movement that gradually united the various regions of the peninsula under the constitutional monarchy of Piedmont and Sardinia. Italy’s liberal period ended abruptly in 1922 with the rise to power of Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party, which ruled the country for more than 20 years. During World War II, Mussolini allied Italy with Germany and Japan as an Axis power, declaring war on France, Britain, and the Soviet Union and invading Greece. An Allied invasion in the south, along with anti-Fascist resistance activity in the north, forced Italy’s capitulation in 1943 and the German occupiers’ defeat two years later. A referendum in 1946 replaced the monarchy with a republican form of government.
The “clean hands” corruption trials of 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.
Italian leaders in the 1990s began a number of institutional reforms to address a list of pressing problems, including revolving-door governments: the country has had more than 50 governments since 1945. In 1993, a new electoral law replaced the existing system of proportional representation with single-member districts for most of the seats in Parliament. The move was designed to reduce the number of political parties that could obtain seats. However, in December 2005, proportional representation was restored, with a provision awarding at least 54 percent of the seats in the lower house to the winning party or coalition, no matter how small its margin of victory. A similar arrangement was made for the upper house. The measures ensured a more stable majority for the governing bloc. A 2000 law granted voting rights to Italians living abroad, and was first put into practice in 2006. Other reforms have included efforts to reduce unnecessary legislation in Parliament and modernize the court system by streamlining the prosecution of cases.
In April 2006, the country held parliamentary elections that ushered in a new government led by Romano Prodi, a former prime minister and the former president of the European Commission. His center-left Union bloc—formed in October 2004 by the parties of the Ulivo (Olive Tree) alliance, including the Left Democrats and the Daisy party, as well as Communist Renewal and various other leftist and green parties—narrowly won the election with a total of 49.8 percent of the votes for the lower house. Incumbent prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right House of Freedoms coalition—consisting of his Forza Italia party, the post-Fascist National Alliance, the regionalist Northern League, and other smaller parties—garnered 49.7 percent. Voter turnout was 83.6 percent, well below the postwar average of over 90 percent.
Berlusconi contested the election results and claimed election fraud by his opponent, but conceded three weeks later. His premiership, Italy’s longest since World War II, had been marred by his personal domination of the country’s broadcast media through a formidable corporate empire. In November, the trial against Berlusconi and his British lawyer David Mills for fraud and money laundering opened in Milan.
In his first speech to the Italian Senate, Prodi signaled a shift in Italian foreign policy by calling the U.S.-led war in Iraq a “grave error.” Berlusconi, who had been relatively supportive of the U.S. effort, had already pledged to withdraw Italy’s 2,600-troop contingent from Iraq by the end of 2006.
In December 2006, prosecutors asked a judge to indict 26 alleged CIA agents who were accused of helping to abduct a Muslim cleric in Milan with Italy’s permission in 2003. In April, Berlusconi’s justice minister, Roberto Castelli, had refused to act on a Milan court’s extradition request for the alleged CIA agents. In November, Nicolo Pollari, the head of Sisme (the Secret Service agency) was forced to resign for his alleged role in the plot. The abduction of the cleric, who was allegedly flown to Egypt for interrogation and tortured, was believed to have been an example of the controversial U.S. antiterrorism tactic known as “extraordinary rendition.”
Voters in a June referendum overwhelmingly rejected a reform package, initially offered by Berlusconi’s government in November 2005, that would have strengthened the role of the prime minister as well as the administrative and taxing powers of the country’s 20 regions. Critics of the latter proposal had claimed that it would widen the economic divide between the wealthy north and the poor south of the country.
Italy is an electoral democracy. Although the role of the president, who is elected for a seven-year term by Parliament and representatives of the regions, is largely ceremonial, Italian presidents have not shied away from taking sides on national political issues. Giorgio Napolitano, a former Communist, was selected for the post in May 2006. The president chooses the prime minister, who is often, but not always, a member of the largest party in the 630-seat lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. The upper house is the Senate, with 315 seats. Members of both chambers serve five-year terms. The constitution also divides the country into 20 administrative regions.
In an attempt to appease the interests of smaller parties, the right-of-center government of then–prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in December 2005 reintroduced full proportional representation to the Parliament. The electoral reform gives the winning party or coalition a 54 percent majority in the lower house no matter how small its actual margin of victory. For the Senate, victory in a given region assures the winning party or coalition a 55 percent majority of that region’s allotment of seats. Although the center-left opposition Union bloc had strongly opposed the changes, it reaped the benefits after a narrow election victory in April 2006. Separately, a law passed in 2000 that granted voting rights to the estimated four million Italians living abroad went into effect for the first time during the April elections. Twelve deputies and six senators were elected to represent “overseas constituencies” in Europe, North and Central America, South America, and Africa-Asia-Oceania.
The center-left Union bloc (including the Ulivo alliance, Communist Renewal, Federation of Greens, and others) and the center-right House of Freedoms coalition (including the Forza Italia party, the National Alliance, the Northern League, and others) are the main political forces in the country.
Corruption remains an issue in politics despite the changes in government over the past decade. Transparency International (TI) gave Italy a rank of 45 out of 163 countries surveyed in its 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index, one of the worst rankings in Western Europe. According to TI’s October 2006 report on bribery, Italian firms are among the worst offenders for paying bribes in low-income countries.
An extensive match-fixing scandal enveloped the country’s soccer organizations before, during, and after its July 2006 World Cup victory. A number of top teams in Italy’s Serie “A” division were demoted within the national ranking system and stripped of their titles following the discovery that they paid referees for favorable rulings.
Also in July, an Italian court ruled that Berlusconi should stand trial for alleged fraud involving Mediaset, his family’s media company. Having previously appeared in court at least six times on corruption charges, Berlusconi claimed that the whole affair was an attempt by left-wing judges to bring him down. The charges followed a long investigation into his business affairs and possible false accounting, tax fraud, and money laundering linked to television-rights deals during the 1990s.
In a separate corruption development, Antonio Fazio in December 2005 had resigned as governor of the central bank, the Bank of Italy, after initially refusing to do so. He had been accused of improperly favoring an Italian bank over a Dutch rival in the takeover battle for a second Italian bank. In September 2005, the government had announced plans to reform the central bank as a result of the scandal. The European Commission in November 2005 said it would take legal action against the Bank of Italy for its handling of recent mergers.
Freedom of speech and the press is constitutionally guaranteed in Italy. However, under the Berlusconi government, the country suffered from an unusually high concentration of media ownership. The former prime minister, through his private holdings and political power over state television networks, controlled 90 percent of the country’s broadcast media during his 2001–2006 rule. Even out of office, Berlusconi holds a dominant share of the private media in the country. However, Berlusconi’s defeat in elections in April effectively ended his control over the publicly owned RAI television channels and his dual role as the country’s top legislator and lead private broadcaster. In addition, a Council of Europe report released in February 2006 demonstrated that, despite the concentration of private broadcast media, there is considerable diversity of content in the country’s news and other media.
In April 2004, the Senate enacted the Gasparri law on broadcasting, which introduced a number of reforms, including preparations for the switch from analogue to digital broadcasting. However, the law has been heavily criticized for providing measures that served Berlusconi’s interests. For example, antitrust limits set by the legislation enabled him to maintain his control of the private media market. In addition, the law removed a previous restriction on one person owning more than two national broadcasting stations, allowing Retequattro, one of three television stations owned by Mediaset, to continue terrestrial broadcasting. However, shortly after Berlusconi’s poor showing in April 2005 regional elections, Finivest, the company at the apex of his business empire, reduced its stake in Mediaset from 50.9 to 34.3 percent, scaling back his control of the media giant.
Italian broadcasting regulators fined Mediaset in February 2006 for giving Berlusconi extra on-air time to promote his campaign for prime minister. He was also criticized for appearing alone for a debate on the show Liberi Tutti . Additional fines were levied on two Mediaset stations for similar offenses just a few days before the elections.
While facing the dangers of monopoly and political interference, the Italian press has also been caught up in national security issues. In August 2006, police searched the homes and offices of newspaper reporters in connection with the investigation of the alleged 2003 kidnapping of an imam by CIA agents.
Freedom of religion is respected and guaranteed by the constitution. A revised Concordat with the Vatican in 1984 made Italy a secular state. Although Roman Catholicism is the dominant faith and the state grants some privileges to the Catholic Church, there is no official religion. The state provides support, if requested, to other sects represented in the country. The government 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 form social and political associations, and between 35 and 40 percent of the workforce is unionized. Shortly after current prime minister Romano Prodi’s April 2006 election victory, taxi-cab drivers began organizing wildcat strikes to protest the new government’s proposals to liberalize taxi licensing.
The efficacy of the country’s judicial system continues to be undermined by long trial delays and the influence of organized crime. Trial delays are caused, in part, by the lack of 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. In July, the lower house approved a bill that reduced sentences on many minor crimes, considerably lowering the country’s prison population. The U.S. State Department’s 2006 human rights report states that from June to November, the prison population dropped from 61,300 to 39,200.
Despite legal prohibitions against torture, there have been reports of excessive use of force by police, particularly against illegal immigrants. A police brutality trial with 75 defendants, including some of Italy’s most senior police officers, began in October 2005 and continued through 2006. The defendants are accused of orchestrating and participating in a campaign of brutality against protesters at the 2001 Group of 8 summit in Genoa.
In July 2006, the lower house of Parliament approved a bill designed to ease the long-standing problem of overcrowding in prisons, in part by cutting the sentences of inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses. The prison system, which was intended to hold 40,000 inmates, currently holds about 60,000.
Italy is a major port of entry for undocumented immigrants trying to reach Europe; large numbers of people from North Africa, the Middle East, China, and South Asia continue to arrive on the country’s shores. A 2005 report by Amnesty International alleged that illegal immigrants detained in Italy are kept in overcrowded and unhygienic holding centers and denied access to lawyers and other experts, making it impossible for them to challenge detention or deportation orders. In May 2006, Italy’s new minister for immigration announced plans to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants with jobs.
Strict fertility laws, strongly supported by the Vatican and Catholic politicians, remain in effect in the country after a June 2005 referendum aimed at relaxing the statutes failed to reach the 50 percent turnout needed for the vote to be valid. The laws in question prevent sperm and egg donations and ban the screening of 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. Female political representation has improved somewhat; about 17 percent of the 630 candidates elected to the Chamber of Deputies in April 2006 were women, a six-point increase over the last elections in 2001.
Italy is a destination and transit country for the trafficking of women and children for sexual and labor exploitation. However, the government did make efforts to tackle the problem, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2005 Trafficking in Persons report. Officials assisted victims with protection and reintegration aid, and conducted public-awareness campaigns to increase prevention.