Italy may no longer rank among the Western democracies that takes press freedom for granted.
On Saturday, 300,000 Italians hit the streets to protest Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's recent attacks on the media. The national guild of journalists accused the government of "undermining" efforts to criticize the government and inform the public.
The protest was spurred by two lawsuits Mr. Berlusconi recently brought against Italian newspapers that have written about his extramarital affairs. In one of the suits, the prime minister is seeking €2.6 million ($3.8 million) in damages from L'Unità, a left-leaning newspaper that sells about 60,000 copies, for offending his honor.
"If we lose, we cannot pay," says Gian Maria Bellu, the deputy chief editor. "They're trying to put us out of business."
Bellu says the deck was stacked in Berlusconi's favor when he recently passed a law granting himself immunity from the sorts of lawsuits he's now pursuing. "It's like challenging someone to a honor duel when you're wearing armor and the other guy is naked," Bellu says. "He can sue us because he is offended by our articles, but we cannot sue him back even if he calls us names."
Berlusconi has been known to dismiss unfriendly journalists as "thugs," and has said that the media is "full of crooks" – even though he controls most of the country's press. His family owns one of the two major Italian news magazines, two daily newspapers, and three of the seven major TV channels.
Of the four remaining TV channels, three are run by the Berlusconi-led government. Although state television continues to run programs that are critical of the government, steps are being taken to curtail its independence. The government opened an investigation into the "Anno Zero" talk show, which airs on state-owned RAI 2.
Last week, the program interviewed a prostitute who said she had an affair with Berlusconi. Marco Travaglio, the outspoken co-host known for criticizing Berlusconi, was recently fired, though before the interview with the prostitute was aired. Journalists on other shows say they've been pressured to suppress criticism of Berlusconi with threats to withhold government insurance.
"We're receiving so much pressure," says Milena Gabanelli, chief editor of Report, an investigative journalism program. "Our major stock owner, the finance minister, doesn't like us much, he even sued us once."
Ms. Gabanelli says the pressure to go soft on the government has become much stronger since Berlusconi has come to power: "No other mature democracy would let a guy who already owns the biggest [private] TV network to control the state TV as well," she says.
Gabanelli also complains that strict Italian defamation laws make it easy to sue the press, which leads to expensive trials that can last up to a decade: "No surprise if investigative journalism is strangled in this country."
Combative? So what else is new?
A minority of Italian reporters, however, say there's nothing special about Berlusconi's combative relationship with the press.
"I don't see the point of protesting against this particular prime minister for suing newspapers, while all his predecessors have done the same," says Paolo Corsini, who heads L'Alternativa, a conservative wing of the journalists' guild that refused to endorse the protest. "When [former progressive prime ministers] Massimo D'Alema and Romano Prodi sued the newspapers that criticized them, nobody said anything. Now it's so hypocritical to see the left protesting in the name of the freedom of speech."
"I'd rather worry about the fact that we still lack an equivalent to the [American] First Amendment," says Mr. Corsini. The Italian Constitution protect freedom of expression, but within limits that can be set by the judiciary.
David Bidussa, a historian at the Feltrinelli Institute, says the independent press doesn't have strong roots in Italy. "Historically, here in Italy, the concept of independent media is virtually absent," he says.
"All the data suggests that one can still say and publish whatever he or she likes in Italy," he adds. "Yet the whole climate is rotten. Berlusconi does not tolerate the mildest criticism and, oddly enough, he keeps claiming to be the victim of the 'evil and powerful' media. On the other hand, left-leaning journalists often are, a priori, against the government, which is both dishonest and a form of snobbery.
"I hear a lot talking about press freedom and independence. But I'm not sure most of the people really want it, nor have a clear idea of what it is."