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Press freedom threatened in Italy between soft censorship and alternative facts

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Press freedom threatened in Italy between soft censorship and alternative facts

Italy has been living for about 5 months in an odd political situation, with a mostly silent Prime Minister, and two extremely vocal Vice Prime Ministers, expression of the two populist forces Lega (League) and Movimento 5 Stelle (5 Star Movement). Neither party is a friend of the press, but the attacks from one of those Vice Prime ministers - and also minister of labour - 5 Stars' Luigi di Maio, have become increasingly belligerent. 

Last week Di Maio vowed to encourage state-owned companies to stop purchasing advertising space in newspapers, as retaliation for their “polluting the democratic debate” with their “propaganda". The measure should be enacted why means of a letter sent to the companies, and confirmed in the next budget law. The declaration prompted the reaction of President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella, who felt the need to confirm that “the unconditional freedom of the press is a cornerstone and fundamental element of democracy”, as guaranteed by article 21 of the country’s Constitution. 

The practice planned by the Italian government dangerously resembles what is known as “soft censorship”, or "indirect government censorship", indicating an array of official actions intended to influence media output, while maintaining an appearance of media freedom.

Rather than engaging in direct bans of specific content in fact, soft censorship in this case consists in the withholding of state media spending with the objective of influencing news coverage of state bodies and officials and their policies: promote praises and punish criticism. It is an extremely effective means of media manipulation and control, which is rapidly spreading from the developing world into the established democracies. 

Di Maio has also lately expressed particularly unsettling “alternative facts” on the country’s news media. First, during the electoral campaign, the 5 Stars proclaimed the need to cut public financing to newspapers, while arguably knowing very well that this does not exist in Italy, and in the case of major news media is pure fabrication. Indeed, in Italy a direct aid is limited to special category of newspapers (representing a political party, language minorities, cooperatives of journalists or Italians abroad), and it is in fact a reimbursement of expenses from the year before: for more insight read the chapter dedicated to Italy in our report "Supporting the media – State measures around the world”. 

Lately Di Maio’s daily attacks to the news media focused on the group GEDI, even though, hilariously, he mistakes it for l’Espresso, non-existing since 2016. GEDI is a leading publishing group in Italy. It operates in the radio, advertising, digital and press sector, where it publishes national dailies La Repubblica, La Stampa and Secolo XIX, major weekly l’Espresso and various local newspapers. 

Di Maio announced through his favorite communication means - a Facebook video - that the newspapers of GEDI would be “dying, because they alter reality”. In saying so he kept calling the group “l’Espresso", possibly because he is uninformed from not reading newspapers, and missed the integration with ITEDI in 2016, and finally the merger agreement from which GEDI was born in 2017. 

In true Trump fashion - and similar grammar skills-, Di Maio declared: “luckily we vaccinated ourselves years ago from the scams and fake news of the newspapers, and many more people are getting vaccinated, that is why many newspapers are dying, including those of the group l’Espresso, which, and I’m sorry for the workers, are starting massive lay-offs because nobody reads them because they spend their time every day altering reality and not reporting reality”. 

The answer from the group GEDI came through the pen of Repubblica editor and star Italian journalist Mario Calabresi: 
“Dear Di Maio, we are not scared: we will keep reporting the news”, and this "despite the increasingly obsessive and aggressive government campaign against newspapers". 
In Calabresi’s opinion, “the new mighty realised that technology can allow them to relize the dream of all governments in history: get freed from intermediaries, from critics and from uncomfortable questions”. He went on to note that the real disinformation is the one spread by Di Maio, and that in fact the group is far from failing and letting staff go.

In particular, Repubblica is the second newspaper in Italy in print and the first online, with a reach exceeding 3 million people, 11% more than runner up Its social media distribution strategy has recently been thoroughly examined in a report published by Reuters last month. 


Elena Perotti's picture

Elena Perotti


2018-10-11 13:41

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