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Truth, Freedom of the Press. and the EU Parliament
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-10-16 07:53:56
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"Everyone knows there is no country that has a freer press than Italy. What about the [far-right Flemish party] Vlaams Belang in Belgium? Do they have freedom of access to the press in Belgium, or are they censored by any chance? Fine defenders of the press you are! And in that soviet of journalists, the journalist's union, what freedom do you give to internal minority in the journalist unions? They just have to keep quiet and toe the line, why don't you go off to Cuba or Tehran or China. Shame on you! Cowards!...Long live free Italy."

                                                                                                     --Mario Borghezio

If the above statement sounds fascistic, so it is, but no, it was not uttered in Mussolini’s advisory council but in the EU Parliament only a few days ago on October 8th 2009, by an Italian euro-deputy with Berlusconi’s party from the anti-immigrant Lega Nord, which is in coalition with Mr Berlusconi's House of Freedoms alliance. He managed to work himself into an angry frenzy and finished his speech by raising his arm and rigidly giving the fascist salute as he shouted “Long live free Italy.”  And what was the leghista protesting? Nothing but the simple demands from Liberal, Socialist and Green parlamentarians that the EU Commission initiate proceedings against Italy over the alleged breach by its government of freedom of the press. 

Those sad developments inside the EU parliament will furnish an idea to the reader of the level of profound disagreement and confusion that exists in that august body parading as freedom of expression and democratic exchange of ideas. Unfortunately, the worst may still be in the making, for the EU Commission has declined to even investigate the matter. Perhaps the accusation of cowardice on the part of Mr. Borghezio does have a modicum of truth after all, but not for the reasons he adduced.

Certainly those demands from the left could not have come at a worst time for Berlusconi and his cohorts, now fighting for his political life; he may even end up being dragged before a court of law not so much for his adultery and venal Boccaccio-like sexual escapades, but for his shameless political corruption parading as “mani pulite.” No wonder the right wingers are angry. And who are those indignant “freedom lovers” in the EU Parliament?  Basically they can be reduced to three: 1) the European People's Party, 2) the anti-federalist European Conservatives, 3) the Reformists and the hard-right euro-skeptic Freedom and Democracy group. They are attacking the left for even attempting to have a debate on the subject while they shout long live free Italy.

And the diatribe did not end there. It proceeded as if in a Fellinesque movie. Mario Mauro, a euro-deputy, also with Mr. Berlusconi's party, reinforced the outlandish statements of Mr. Borghezio by pointing out that the question of media freedom in Italy is only raised by the left when the right is in power. Said he that "Following the victory of the left, the problem disappeared as if by magic. There is no more drama in the European Parliament. No more collections of signatures. Now that Berlusconi's back, when it is clear that if you have a centre-right government, the press is at risk; if you have a centre-left government, the press is not at risk."

Left-wing MEPs responded that when the left was in power, the prime minister was not a media mogul controlling most of the private broadcasters and publishers in the country. But Mr. Mauro undeterred by such a response went on to accuse the left of trying to turn Europe into a "Stalinist state" with this statement: "This humiliation will be dear to Italy to be the subject of this debate, the product of professional dis-informers. It will cost us dearly, but it will do worse for Europe if it starts handing out democracy licences not to defend freedom, but to defend a centralized sort of Stalinist state."  Obviously the right of the chamber is infuriated by the accusations that they believe are a left-wing attempt to undermine the government of Silvio Berlusconi. As I said: worthy of a Fellini movie. But where does the truth lie?

The truth lies perhaps in the sheer incompetence and powerlessness exhibited by the EU Commission, the executive branch of the EU. Media commissioner Viviane Reding addressed the chamber on the same day and gave the EU executive's declaration on freedom of expression in Italy. Ms. Reding said that the European Commission had no power to take any action whatever in the case. "The fact that fundamental rights apply to EU policies does not make the EU competent for all matters related to fundamental rights in this or that EU member state."

This rather cowardly stance was vehemently rebuked by Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Liberals in the parliament but also until last year the prime minister of Belgium, who felt that the commissioner was wrong in her interpretation of the EU treaties. "It is on the basis of the treaty that we call on the commission to come up with a directive on media pluralism that would guarantee constitutional protections on media freedom in all countries of the union. I'm disappointed with the commissioner's remarks. Member states can do whatever they want so long as in line with their own constitution? I don't agree. There are things that need to be protected across Europe."

And what are the centre and left of the chamber asking of the European Commission?  Simply to propose a directive countering media concentration, in order to break up the media monopoly in Italy and prevent similar threats to the press elsewhere in Europe. They see the problem applying not only to Italy, for infringements occur across the EU, which was why their concerns requires European action. They detect an alarming climate of media intimidation in the EU as a whole where journalists are fired for allegedly stepping out of line while others self-censor to simply hold onto their jobs. As a result, the deputies are requesting that the commission invoke Article 7 of the EU treaty, under which member states that commit a "serious and persistent breach" of fundamental rights can have their voting rights in the Council removed.

To that Commissioner Reding’s reply was that "Article 7 is a very exceptional provision. It has never been activated so far. This clause can only apply if complete breakdown of national juridical order and fundamental rights in a given member state. We haven't reached that in any member state." She reminded the chamber that the parliament also has the power to invoke Article 7 by obtaining a four fifths majority. The European Council can also invoke the clause if a third of member states agree. "I call on the European Parliament if it really thinks there is proof enough to activate Article 7 to do so." Thus Ms. Reding called the MEPs' bluff, knowing full well that the chamber’s left leaning coalitions do not have a four fifth majority and that in fact in the last EU elections the right wing coalitions of xenophobes and anti-immigrants and other fascists had gained ground while the voting electorate went merrily to the beach.

But seriously, the above bizarre spectacle can be dubbed: “passing the buck” and avoiding responsibility. The fascist salute in the EU house of parliament and the pusillanimity of the EU Commission in defending freedom of the press and the right to write the truth, certainly does not bode well for the future of  a vibrant democracy in the EU. No wonder there is so much skepticism around. Indeed, we do live in interesting times and the best is still to come.


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Thanos2009-10-16 08:08:31
odd, while we are waiting for the best to come we are showing our worst!

The same time things like that happen the press has often shown its own fascism and there are cases where the press felt that is not there to control the power but that it is the power.
Coming to Italy now, I'm afraid during the Berlusconi era the Italian democracy has shown us her worst face.

Emanuel Paparella2009-10-16 11:17:35
Indeed Thanos, “the best is still to come” was meant ironically, for it is hard to be optimistic and hopeful at the sad spectacle of a press with a tendency to abdicate its mission to bravely report the truth . The Italians have a saying:: “il pesce puzza sempre dalla testa” [dead fish always begins to stink from its head], which perfectly fits the nexus between Berlusconi’s leadership and a prostituted Italian democracy. Perhaps we can hope for the best in the sense that one cannot go any lower, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Thanos2009-10-16 16:18:48
We have the same saying in Greece and I totally agree with you!

Lior F2010-10-19 03:57:24
This was a very nicely written piece.

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