Italy | Freedom House

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In October 2009, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in Rome against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s attacks on the media, which had covered the premier’s personal life, including allegations that he had sex with a teenage girl. Meanwhile, parliament adopted a controversial new immigration law, and the country made gains against the influence 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.
Parliamentary elections in 2006 ushered in a new center-left coalition government led by Romano Prodi, leaving Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-rightbloc 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’s rightist coalition, People of Freedom (PDL), handily won early parliamentary elections in April 2008, 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. Berlusconi ran on pledges to crack down on crime and illegal immigration, and the new Parliament passed a number of measures on those issues in 2008 and 2009.
A debate over the separation of church and state in Italy was sparked in 2009 after a teacher received a one-month suspension in February for removing a crucifix from his classroom. A November ruling by the European Court of Human Rights against the use of crucifixes in Italian classrooms was met with opposition. Also in February, the Supreme Court dismissed a seven-month jail sentence handed down to a judge for failing to perform his duties after he refused to enter courts where crucifixes were hanging.
In June 2009, voters were presented with a national referendum on electoral laws during the European elections. The referendum, which sought to further reduce the number of parties in the system and move the country closer to a two-party model, was considered invalid when the number of respondents was lower than the necessary quorum of 50 percent.
Berlusconi, the first head of Italian government to take legal action against Italian and European media, continued to interfere in journalists’ efforts to cover conflicts between his private and political life. A national media group, L’Espresso, which owns La Repubblica newspaper, sued Berlusconi for defamation in Julyfor calling the newspaper “subversive” and encouraging businesses to boycott advertising with the paper. Berlusconi’s private life came under further scrutiny in May 2009 when his wife of 19 years accused him of “consorting with minors” and filed for divorce. La Repubblica subsequently began investigating the prime minister’s personal life, alleging that he had also paid for sex. On October 3, 2009, between 150,000 and 300,000 people assembled in Rome for the “Right to Know, Duty to Inform” protest against Berlusconi’s attacks on the media.
Twenty-two CIA agents, one U.S Air Force colonel, and two Italian secret agents were convicted in November in an Italian court for the 2003 kidnapping of a Muslim cleric in Milan. The cleric had been transferred to Egypt where he was allegedly tortured as part of the U.S. policy of “extraordinary rendition.” The Americans plan to appeal the conviction.

In December, Berlusconi was attacked while getting into a car in Milan by a man with a history of mental illness; Berlusconi suffered two broken teeth and a small nose fracture.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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.
A 1993 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 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. 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. Just six parties won seats in the lower house in the 2008 elections, down from 26 the previous election.
In March 2009, Silvio Berlusconi consolidated the two main rightist parties—his Forza Italia and the former neo-fascist National Alliance—into a single party, People of Freedom (Il Popolo della Liberta or PDL). The regionalist and anti-immigration Lega Nord party, which is still part of the ruling coalition, decided to remain an independent party. The PDL first emerged as an electoral alliance with all three parties in 2008, while the Democratic Party, the main party of the left, allied itself with the Italy of Values party.
Corruption remains an issue in politics despite the changes in government over the past decade. Italy was ranked 63 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index, the second lowest rating for Western Europe. Berlusconi has faced numerous corruption charges over the years, but has never been convicted. However, in October 2009, the Constitutional Court overturned a law granting Berlusconi immunity from prosecution while still in office. The ruling allows for a number of pending court cases against him to proceed; the first of which began in November involving tax fraud related to the media group Mediaset, in which Berlusconi owns a significant stake. The trial was eventually adjourned as the prime minister could not attend due to state business.
Freedoms of speech and of the press are constitutionally guaranteed. However, the prime minister controls up to 90 percent of the country’s broadcast media through state-owned outlets and his own private media holdings. 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. The Chamber of Deputies passed an amendment to a controversial bill in June 2009 which reintroduced jail sentences for journalists who use the transcripts from wiretaps without a judge’s permission. The Senate had yet to approve the amendment at year’s end. In August,Berlusconi sued several foreign newspapers covering his private life, including accusations that he had a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old girl. Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family, attacked the Catholic paper, Avvenire, after it ran stories criticizing Berlusconi’s behavior. Also in August, the state broadcasting network, RAI, and the private media group, Mediaset, both refused to show a trailer for Videocracy, a film critical of Berlusconi’s domination over the media. Although the internet is generally unrestricted, the government blocks foreign websites if they violate national laws.
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 around 35 percent of the workforce is unionized. The constitution recognizes the right to strike, with the exception of those employed in essential services and a number of self-employed professions, such as lawyers, doctors, and truck drivers.
The judicial system is undermined by long trial delays and the influence of organized crime. A bill backed by Berlusconi’s government that would place a six-year cap on the length of trials in Italy’s three-tier justice system was pending before parliament at year’s end. The bill, which does not apply to mafia crimes, has been criticized by the opposition as it would apply retroactively and annul Berlusconi’s current trials for tax fraud and corruption. Despite legal prohibitions against torture, there have been reports of excessive use of force by police, particularly against illegal immigrants. In August, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that an Italian police officer who shot dead a protester during the 2001 Group of 8 summit in Genoa was acting in self-defense. Some prisons system suffer from overcrowding.
The country made some gains against organized crime in 2009. In March, 100,000 people marched in Naples against the Camorra—the Naples-based organized crime syndicate—one of the largest turnouts for this annual antimafia event. In July, 49 members of a Sicilian mafia crime family were jailed for extorting protection money from Sicilian stores. These were the first successful prosecutions for Sicilian businesses, who had cooperated and worked closely with police. Throughout the year, police arrested several top leaders in the Camorra and additional commanders in the Sicilian mafia.
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 government began a crackdown on illegal immigration in 2008, including the arrests of hundreds of suspected illegal immigrants in May. In July 2009, a new immigration law was passed that fines illegal immigrants and gives authorities the power to detain them for up to six months without charge. A number of human rights groups raised concerns that the new law undermines the rights of asylum seekers. The law also allows for the formation of unarmed patrol groups to help police maintain order and imprison people who knowingly harbor undocumented immigrants. One such group, the Italian National Guard, was created in June and has been criticized for evoking the Blackshirt Legion of the fascist era. The group is currently under investigation by authorities in Milan for breaching laws prohibiting the display and use of Nazi and fascist insignia.
Women benefit from generous maternity-leave provisions, equality in the workforce, and considerable educational opportunities. However, violence against women continues to be a problem, and female political representation is low for the region. Women hold 21 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. In July 2009, Italy became the last European country to approve the abortion pill. However, unlike in the United States and other European countries, the pill can only be administered in hospitals, where the patient must remain until the pill has taken effect.

Italy is a destination country for the trafficking of women and children for sexual and labor exploitation. The Italian government has made efforts to tackle the problem by increasing its prosecution of traffickers and it also finances nongovernmental organizations that work to raise awareness of the problem and support trafficking victims.