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 declined from 1 to 2 due to the further concentration of media outlets under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and persistent interference by organized crime networks in the functioning of private businesses.
Parliamentary elections were held in April 2008, three years ahead of schedule, after the center-left coalition government led by Prime Minister Romano Prodi collapsed in January. Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and his center-right coalition secured a substantial margin of victory in the balloting, which also reduced the number of parties in the lower house of Parliament from 26 to 6. Berlusconi’s return to the premiership in May raised concerns about press freedom, as it left him in control of both state media and his own private media empire. Also during the year, the government sent 500 soldiers to the Campania region to combat the ongoing problem of organized crime.
Italy was unified under the constitutional monarchy of Piedmont and Sardinia in the 19th century. Its liberal period ended in 1922 with the rise Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party, which eventually led the country to defeat in World War II. A referendum in 1946 replaced the monarchy with a republican form of government.
The “clean hands” corruption trials of the early 1990s prompted the collapse of the major political factions 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 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 and ensure a more stable majority for the parties in power; Italians had seen more than 50 governments since 1945. 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.
Voters in a June 2006 referendum overwhelmingly rejected a reform package, initially offered by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right government in November 2005, that would have strengthened the role of the prime minister and the administrative and taxing powers of the country’s 20 regions. Critics claimed that the latter provision would have widened the economic divide between the wealthy north and the poor south.
Parliamentary elections in April 2006 ushered in a new center-left coalition government led by Romano Prodi, leaving Berlusconi’s bloc in opposition for the first time since 2001. Berlusconi’s premiership had been marred by abortive attempts to prosecute him on money laundering, fraud, and tax evasion charges, and by his personal domination of the national media, including state outlets and his extensive private holdings. However, Prodi’s new government proved unstable; in 2007 it lost key votes in Parliament over Italy’s troop presence in Afghanistan, and it finally collapsed after a no-confidence vote in January 2008.
Berlusconi and his new conservative party, People of Freedom (PDL), handily won early parliamentary elections in April, capturing a total of 344 seats in the lower house and 174 in the Senate in combination with two smaller allies. A center-left coalition led by Rome mayor Walter Veltroni’s new Democratic Party placed second with 246 seats in the lower house and 132 seats in the Senate. Voter turnout was 80 percent, down from 83.6 percent in 2006 and a postwar average of over 90 percent.
Berlusconi ran on pledges to crack down on crime and illegal immigration, and the new Parliament passed a number of measures on those issues during the year. One law criminalized illegal entry and set penalties of up to four years in prison for the offense, and another required the fingerprinting of all Romany residents, including children. Such legislation, as well as attacks on the Romany community, led Amnesty International to warn of a “climate of discrimination” in Italy. Although the law was expanded to include all residents in Italy, the government had already begun fingerprinting in the Roma communities.
In September, after a group of immigrants were killed by suspected members of the Naples-based organized crime syndicate, the Camorra, 500 soldiers were deployed to the region to bolster law enforcement efforts. Organized crime remained a serious problem in Italy despite the arrest of powerful bosses from the Camorra and Sicily’s Mafia in 2007. The Camorra, along with official mismanagement, was blamed for a long-running garbage crisis in Naples. Separately, a May report by the Eurispes research institute found that the ’Ndrangheta, an organized crime group based in the Calabria region, had become a multinational operation with an annual income equal to nearly 3 percent of Italy’s gross domestic product.
Berlusconi continued to be dogged by corruption allegations in 2008, but in July parliament passed a law that gives the prime minister and other elected officials immunity from prosecution while they are in office. Meanwhile, a Milan judge ruled in May that both Berlusconi and Prodi could be called as witnesses in the trial of U.S. and Italian intelligence officials who had been charged in 2007 for the 2003 extraordinary rendition of a Muslim cleric from Milan to Egypt, where he was allegedly tortured.
Italy is an electoral democracy. The president, whose role is largely ceremonial but sometimes politically influential, is elected for a seven-year term by Parliament and representatives of the regions. Giorgio Napolitano, a former Communist, was selected for the post in 2006. The president chooses the prime minister, who is often, but not always, the leader 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.
Proportional representation for parliamentary elections, after being curtailed in 1993, was reintroduced in December 2005. Under the new system, the winning party or coalition receives a minimum 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. Separately, a 2000 law granting voting rights to the estimated four million Italians living abroad took effect for the first time in the 2006 elections. Twelve deputies and six senators were elected in the April 2008 balloting to represent “overseas constituencies” in Europe, North and Central America, South America, and Africa-Asia-Oceania.
The 2008 elections marked the national debut of two major parties, the PDL and the Democratic Party, which had been formed from several factions on the right and left, respectively. The PDL also formed an electoral bloc with the regionalist and anti-immigration Lega Nord party and the small Movement for Autonomy party, while the Democratic Party allied itself with the Italy of Values party. Other parties ran independently. Due to the recent party consolidation and the new voting system, just six parties won seats in the lower house, down from 26.
Corruption remains an issue in politics despite the changes in government over the past decade. Transparency International gave Italy a rank of 55 out of 180 countries surveyed in its 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index, a particularly poor showing for its region. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has faced numerous corruptions charges over the years, but has never been convicted. A fraud trial was suspended in February 2008 to allow him to campaign, and in July parliament passed a law that gives him and other top members of the government immunity from prosecution while in office. A similar bill passed when he was prime minister in 2003 was later thrown out by the Constitutional Court. In June, lawmakers passed a decree that freezes trials for a year if the alleged offense carries a prison sentence of less than 10 years; the measure was criticized as a potential disruption to the justice system that directly benefited Berlusconi.
Freedom of speech and the press is constitutionally guaranteed. However, Berlusconi’s return to power gave him the potential to control up to 90 percent of the country’s broadcast media, through the state-owned outlets and his own private media holdings. A 2006 Council of Europe report found that despite the ownership concentration of private broadcast outlets, there was considerable diversity of content in the country’s news and other media. There are many newspapers and news magazines, most of them with regional bases. Newspapers are primarily run by political parties or owned by large media groups. Although the internet is generally unrestricted, the government blocks foreign websites if they violate national laws, and the police monitor websites in an effort to catch child pornographers.
In June 2008, the cabinet approved a bill that would impose heavy fines or jail terms on journalists who use the transcripts from wiretaps without a judge’s permission. The bill, which had yet to win parliamentary approval at year’s end, was similar to one passed by the lower house in 2007.
Freedom of religion is respected and guaranteed by the constitution. 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 assemble and form social and political associations, and between 35 and 40 percent of the workforce is unionized. A new school reform law, which included budget cuts as well as a 10-point system for grading students’ conduct, caused student protests across the country in October 2008.
The judicial system is undermined by long trial delays and the influence of organized crime. Trial delays are caused in part by effectively open-ended pretrial investigations, a lack of judicial personnel and other resources, vague or contradictory laws, and the host of minor offenses in the penal code. The 2008 reelection of Berlusconi has also raised concerns about political attacks on the judiciary. In June, he read a letter to the Senate alleging that the criminal prosecutions against him were run by politically motivated “extreme-left magistrates.”
The prison system has suffered from overcrowding. Despite legal prohibitions against torture, there have been reports of excessive use of force by police, particularly against illegal immigrants. In July 2008, a group of 15 defendants were convicted for mistreatment of protesters detained during the 2001 Group of 8 summit in Genoa. They received sentences ranging from five months to five years and included police officers, prison officials, and two doctors, one of whom failed to inform authorities that prisoners were sprayed with asphyxiating gas.
Italy is a major entry point for undocumented immigrants trying to reach Europe, and the government has been criticized for holding illegal immigrants in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions and denying them access to lawyers and other experts. The new government in 2008 began a crackdown on illegal immigration, starting with a major raid in May that led to the arrests of hundreds of suspected illegal immigrants, and a new law made illegal immigration a crime, punishable by up to four years in prison. Amnesty International warned of growing intolerance in the country, especially toward the Romany community, which suffered arson attacks in Naples in May. Interior Minister Roberto Maroni in June proposed fingerprinting all Roma in the country, including children, as a way to stem crime. The plan, which met with harsh criticism, was eventually extended to all residents of Italy and approved by the European Commission in September, but only after the government had started fingerprinting in the Roma communities.
Organized crime has continued to expand in Italy, negatively affecting business activities, property rights, and social services, such as trash collection in Naples, which was stymied by the local Camorra group. The ‘Ndrangheta crime group based in Calabria has grown into a multinational crime corporation, according to a report by Eurispes, with an annual income of almost 3 percent of Italy’s gross domestic product; the group has expanded from its base in Calabria to Milan. However, in February, police arrested Pasquale Condello, the top boss of the ‘Ndrangheta. During the year, the government seized a considerable amount of assets from mafia groups, according to a government report.
Women benefit from generous 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, and female political representation is low for the region. In the 2008 elections, women took 21 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies, 4 percentage points more than in 2006. Italy has one of the highest rates of female unemployment in Europe.
Italy is a destination and transit country for the trafficking of women and children for sexual and labor exploitation. However, the government has made efforts to tackle the problem, particularly in the area of prosecution, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report. A major antitrafficking operation in late 2006 and early 2007 produced nearly 800 arrests. The government also finances nongovernmental organizations that work to raise awareness of the problem and support trafficking victims.