Berlusconi aides blame Facebook, internet after attack

Aides to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Tuesday that social networking sites like Facebook helped inspire the man who attacked the Italian leader earlier this week, and proposed limiting free speech on the internet.

By , Correspondent

The attack against Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is now expected to leave the hospital on Wednesday, may have a surprising result: stricter controls on freedom of speech on Facebook and Twitter in Italy.

Members of the prime minister's governing coalition are blaming Sunday's attack, which left Mr. Berlusconi with a broken nose and two fractured teeth, on social networking sites.

Despite the fact that Mr. Berlusconi appears in a forgiving mood -- in a message posted on political party's website Tuesday he wrote "everyone should stay calm and secure. Love always triumphs over envy and hate" -- one of his ministers has other ideas.

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Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said he is considering tougher limits on freedom of expression and pledged to crack down on social networking sites that “instigate” violence against the prime minister.

Speaking to Parliament on Tuesday, Mr. Maroni blamed the attack on a “campaign of hatred” allegedly waged online against Berlusconi and said he feared an uncensored web might offer a platform for “a dangerous spiral of emulation.”

The internet is one of the few sources of news and information in Italy that aren't subject to some form of control by Mr. Berlusconi. His family media empire owns one of the two major Italian news magazines, two daily newspapers, and three of the seven major TV channels. Three more of Italy's major channels are run by his government.

While there are a number of independent newspapers, Berlusconi has sought to limit their room for maneuver, bringing lawsuits against newspapers that have reported on his extramarital affairs and allegations that he used call girls.

It's not unusual for Italian politicians to blame violent crimes on the Internet, some say. “It has happened before. When something bad happens, the authorities' first reaction is to tighten the grip on online censorship,” says Andrea Monti, a lawyer who also heads a group promoting freedom of expression on the web.

“That's the most inefficient of reactions, for limiting freedom of speech harms honest citizens and makes fanatics happy,” says the lawyer. He compared the websites expressing their support to the attack on Berlusconi to those that deny the Holocaust: “No sane person can agree with them, but deniers love to be censured, they want to be turned into martyrs.”

Monti says censorship will make it more difficult for citizens to access the web, which he describes as a "powerful tool of democracy."

Limits on free speech

Italy already has some of Europe's strictest limits on free speech. There's a law on the books, largely ignored, that requires most blogs to register as newspapers with the National Order of Journalists.

Another law, approved after 9/11, requires all internet cafes to examine their customers IDs and sets severe limits on the use of wireless connections.

“Honestly, I can't immagine how Maroni can further reduce the freedom of expression online, given how bad the situation really is,” argues Monti.

Maroni announced he will have a draft proposal for new by Thursday, when the council of ministers is scheduled to meet. He refused to reveal any details ahead of the meeting. “It's a delicate topic, concerning the freedom of speech on the web and [more generally] the freedom of expression in public,” he said.

Berlusconi's recovery

Berlusconi was hit on Sunday evening, after a tense political rally in Milan. Massimo Tartaglia, a 42-year-old man with a psychiatric history, threw a replica of Milan's main cathedral at Berlusconi's face.

Berlusconi will be released from hospital on Wednesday, but his doctors have told him to take two weeks off before resuming his political activities.

Mr. Tartaglia reportedly sent a letter of apology to Berlusconi, describing his own actions as “superficial, cowardly, and ill-judged.” He also stated he acted alone and has no political affiliation.

Tartaglia may hope his public apology will save him jail time. Berlusconi pardoned a young man, Roberto Dal Bosco, who threw a metallic object at him in 2004. The prime minister was not harmed in the earlier attack.

Despite Tartaglia's apology, several anti-Berlusconi groups gathered on Facbook and websites to turn him into a hero. One pro-Tartaglia site on Facebook attracted several thousand members.

By Tuesday afternoon, however, most of these groups were scrubbed from the site.

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