Orwell in Italy

Under a new Italian law, freedom of expression is a "dead right walking."

By Dave Kopel, research director of the Independence Institute & Carlo Stagnaro, assistant editor of the libertarian review, Enclave.

National Review Online, April 25, 2001 9:25 a.m. More by Kopel on Italy.

Like the American Constitution, the Italian Constitution guarantees freedom of the press: "Everyone has the right to freely express his own thought with words, writings and other means. The press cannot be subject to permits or censorship" (Art. 21, Italian Constitution). But at the behest of the Italian media, Italy's Parliament has just dealt a severe blow to free speech in Italy, notwithstanding the plain language of the Italian Constitution.

Italian law states that if one wishes to publish any kind of magazine, review, or whatever else, one must be member (or find an editor who is a member) of the Association of Journalists.

Although this seems like the kind of law that might have been enacted by Mussolini, it actually dates from the post-war years. But once the Internet swept through Italy, ordinary citizens began to build websites, forums, newsgroups, webzines, and many other means to provide news to the public. The professional journalists' monopoly was in deep trouble. So the Parliament, just a few weeks before the elections, has passed a new law requiring that websites akin to the press (i.e., websites that publish news) follow the same rules at the printed press. Every "non-periodical" website must publish the name and address of its "editor" and the name and address of the server; and every "periodical" website must be registered in the local tribunal and have an editor who is member of the Association of Journalists.

The new law has several consequences. First, professional journalists protect their illegitimate monopoly by reducing Internet competition. Second, people who have politically incorrect ideas will find it more difficult to express them. Third, Italian website providers will now face additional costs that their international competitors won't. Under this law, freedom of expression is a "dead right walking."

While ordinary Italians, it might be hoped, can no longer express their thoughts in Italy, the Internet still gives them the opportunity to publish their writings on foreign servers. But the new law defines as "Italian" any website the contents of which "are made in Italy" or "are transmitted" to Italy.

According to Mr. Paolo Serventi Longhi, Secretary of the Italian Journalists Union, "The absurd anarchy has finished, at least in Italy, which permits everyone to publish news online without any rule or control, and citizens' right to have some information standards respected is granted."

Not all Italian journalists, however, are so contemptuous of free-speech rights. Paolo de Andreis, a journalist with the Italian webzine Punto Informatico, strongly opposes the new law, calling it "Orwell-style censorship." This is why Punto Informatico has promoted a petition in order to ask the new Parliament (to be elected on May 13th) immediately to repeal the statute.

Today, many Italian websites are legal outlaws and could be criminally prosecuted. Of course, this law will not be enforced against all of them — only those which endorse ideas unsafe for the good of the government. The law requiring a permit to produce news was passed with support of both the leftists and rightists in the Parliament — as parties put aside their ideological differences to find common ground in empowering the government to punish and extinguish dissent.

A side-note: To an American audience, it might seem incredible that the establishment media in Italy could work so hard to suppress freedom of speech, to bolster its own influence by suppressing other voices. Yet this is precisely what the American media are doing with their intense and often biased promotion of the McCain-Feingold bill. As passed by the Senate, McCain-Feingold makes it vastly more difficult for groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Rifle Association, and others to buy advertisements criticizing or applauding members of Congress; the McCain-Feingold speech-blackout periods for free speech go into effect 60 days before a general election, and 30 days before a primary. In both the Old World and the New, citizens who care about freedom of the press must defend it themselves, for many elements of the professional press seem eager to suppress other voices.

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