As an opinion columnist at the Daily, I have one great luxury at my disposal: a medium through which I can express and advocate whatever I think and believe. And just as I am free to opine, anyone reading my columns is free to respond and to question my logic. It’s called freedom of expression, and it’s an essential component of any democracy.
In Italy, freedom of information has been under attack for the last fifteen years, courtesy of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. And because Italian journalists are increasingly censored from criticizing Berlusconi, I feel compelled as a native Italian to speak out in their place and to give lessons to America from the Italian experience.
Berlusconi has faced dozens of criminal allegations — two of which are still pending – including corruption, fraud, bribery and mafia collusion. He has made countless unflattering remarks throughout his tenure as prime minister, including joking about AIDS, remarking that he liked Obama because he is nicely “tanned” and telling a German European Member of Parliament that he would be well suited to play the role of a Nazi concentration camp guard. This begs two questions: First, how is Berlusconi still in power after having served as prime minister on three separate occasions? Second, how is his approval rating one of the highest of any European leader?
The answer is simple: He controls Italian television.
Berlusconi’s private television networks alone account for half of the Italian television market. And since Berlusconi can also fire and reappoint the management of Italy’s public television stations whenever his party is in power, he effectively controls 90% of Italian television. And in a country where 80% of the people receive their news from television, that gives him the power to effectively manipulate public opinion. So it is unsurprising that Berlusconi has been able to get away with suing newspapers for libel, accusing his critics of being “criminals” and “communists” and pushing through legislation that censors the Italian press and seeks to save his own political career from criminal charges.
In short, what we are witnessing in Italy is a very serious assault on democracy. Recently, Reporters Without Borders, an international association of journalists, warned that Berlusconi is likely to be added to its list of “predators of press freedom,” which would be a first for any European leader. And as Italian political scientist Giovanni Sartori somberly reminds us, “one of the characteristics of dictatorships is the monopoly of information … what does it do to democracy? It destroys it, in substance.”
You may ask yourself why you should care about the integrity of Italy’s democracy. First, consider the fact that there are over 450,000 Italian Americans residing in the state of Michigan, according to the 2000 Census. Here on campus, Italian Americans maintain a very visible presence. For every individual who identifies as Italian, Berlusconi’s undemocratic crusade should be a very personal concern indeed.
But you don’t have to be Italian to learn valuable lessons from Italy’s democratic struggle. No matter what nationality you are, the health of a democracy is dependent on the level of integrity and independence of its democratic institutions, including the mass media. This situation illustrates the sad truth that any leader faced with a clear conflict of interest — generally a choice between fighting for the public good and acting in self-interest — is likely to choose the latter and therefore should be subject to intense scrutiny. But it also teaches us that politicians who are frequently the subject of mockery — Berlusconi being a prime example — are still very capable of doing great harm to democracy and should be taken seriously.
It’s also worth asking if some types of media are better for democracy than others. Clearly, television can be used to control and manipulate public opinion. But this is not the case for online media — censoring the Internet is notoriously difficult. As Italian investigative journalist Marco Travaglio noted, “Every time they try to mark the cards, they’ll know that somebody is watching and what they’re trying to hide will be put online.”
In this light, Twitter and YouTube just might be the greatest obstacles standing between a non-democratic leader and his quest for power.
Tommaso Pavone can be reached at email@example.com.