In Italy, there's no phone left untapped

In Italy, there's no phone left untapped

In Italy, you’re nobody if your phone isn’t tapped. Or, as Beppe Grillo, Italy’s leading political provocateur and blogger, put it: “This is a nation where if you can’t be blackmailed, you’ll never get ahead.”

Wiretaps have captured showgirls and Mafiosi, politicians and loosely defined ‘masseuses,’ and recently even a Vatican choir singer procuring seminarians for trysts with a male public works official.

Even Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi routinely turns up in the wiretaps that are leaked to the Italian press with alarming regularity, usually in a supporting role, swept up in an investigation of someone else, but sometimes as the subject of the investigation himself.

In 2007, he was caught on the phone with a television executive calling a member of his centre-right coalition ‘a jerk’ and asking the executive to meet with a showgirl. He is apparently not pleased.

To rein in the embarrassing leaks that are a running sideshow to Italy’s political circus, his government is pushing a contentious new law that would severely restrict the ability of magistrates to wiretap and journalists to publish the results.


But some fear that the same law that might keep politicians out of the tabloids might also keep Mafiosi out of prison. Veteran anti-Mafia magistrates and counterterrorism investigators say the bill would hamper criminal investigations, while journalists fear a loss of press freedom.

“The problem exists, but in my view the solution is wrong,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political science professor at the University of Florence. “You go from making it too easy to get wiretaps to making it too hard.”

The new legislation would limit wiretaps to two months for most criminal investigations, down from six months to a year currently, and set steep fines on journalists who published leaked material. If passed, it could affect hundreds of continuing investigations and trials, including some that have already reached high into the Berlusconi government.

Even though the leaks are widely acknowledged to be unruly, many see the new bill as another ‘ad personam’ law, aimed more at protecting Berlusconi’s personal and political interests than Italian democracy.

Responding to howls of protest, the centre-right coalition scaled back the bill. But it would still prohibit the news media from publishing excerpts of wiretaps until the very end of preliminary investigations, and then only in summary. In Italy’s sluggish justice system investigations can take years, and news from leaked wiretaps can often have important political and economic ramifications.

In 2005, the governor of the Bank of Italy resigned after leaked wiretaps showed that he had taken sides in the sale of an Italian bank, although the formal investigation began only in 2009. Under the new bill, “For four years we would not have been able to write in 2005 about events which could completely change the face of the Italian economy,” said De Bortoli, the editor of ‘Corriere della Sera’.

In protest, Italian newspapers have been highlighting material that they would not be able to publish if the law passed.

Last year, the Italian authorities monitored more than 1,12,000 phones and 13,000 locations, according to the justice ministry, figures widely seen as among the highest in Europe.

Anti-Mafia and counterterrorism prosecutors have long argued that the bill would jeopardise investigations. Some have said that high-profile mafia bosses could not have been captured under the proposed law, which would require magistrates to have strong evidence that a crime had been committed before they could bug a location like a car or an office.

Under the proposed law, wiretaps would have to be approved by a panel of three judges and most could last up to 60 days, with a possible extension to 75. Magistrates would also need special approval to tap the phones of members of Parliament and the permission of a diocese to tap a priest’s phone.