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Italy13 June 2008

Ulterior motives seen in new bill imposing jail terms and heavy fines on media that publish phone taps

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s cabinet today unanimously approved a bill that would restrict the use of phone taps to investigations of crimes carrying prison terms of at least 10 years and would impose heavy fines or jail terms on journalists and news media that publish transcripts of phone taps without a judge’s permission.

“There would seem to be ulterior motives to this bill as it would obstruct the work of both the courts and journalists,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It is supposed to provide better protection for privacy, but in practice it would also protect certain crimes from the public’s knowledge and judicial investigation. One wonders about the government’s real motives.”

The bill, which will now go before the chamber of deputies and senate, would ban phone taps in investigations of crimes carrying prison terms of less than 10 years, instead of five as is currently the case. Exception would be made for crimes against the state, including corruption cases, for which the minimum sentence would have to only five years. Phone taps would henceforth be banned in “criminal association” and “insider trading” cases.

Journalists publishing phone taps without a judge’s permission could henceforth be punished by one to three years in prison while their publishers could be fined up to 100,000 euros for allowing this.

In June 2007, Reporters Without Borders warned of the dangers of bill proposed by former justice minister Clemente Mastella that would have drastically restricted the publication of phone taps in the media and would have reduced the ability of reporters and editors to make their own editorial decisions.

Just as Mastella’s bill was widely condemned, so today’s bill has been the target of fierce criticism from the National Union of Journalists (FNSI), the president of the Order of Journalists, Lorenzo del Boca, and former Rome mayor Walter Veltroni.

Berlusconi, who has himself in the past been the target of phone taps that resulted in several prosecutions, initially said that the new law would make the “illegal” publication of phone taps punishable by five years in prison.

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