Democracy takes a beating in Italy

Italian politicians are taking advantage of the attack on Silvio Berlusconi in Milan to clamp down on liberties.

The recent attack on Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi at a political rally in Milan has turned into an attack on freedom of debate and association. While Berlusconi, who was hit in the face with a souvenir statue of the Milan Cathedral, suffered a fractured nose, two broken teeth and a chipped lip, democracy here in Italy has taken a far heavier beating since the incident on Sunday.

As Berlusconi recovers in a private wing of a Milan hospital, Italians have debated the motivations and implications of the attack. Many people I have spoken to said it was simply the act of a madman – the attacker, Massimo Tartaglia, has a history of psychological problems and may now be transferred to a psychiatric hospital. But some Italian politicians have claimed that this is a political act which should have political consequences.

Gianfranco Fini, the head of Italy’s parliament, declared that Italy is ‘going back to the age of violence’. He was referring to the Years of Lead during the late 1970s and early 1980s when political terrorism was rife. In 1978, a former prime minister, Aldo Moro, was even kidnapped and killed by the Red Brigades. But such parallels are completely unfounded. The sustained bombings and attacks on politicians during the Years of Lead were carried out by political groups with strategic, political objectives (whatever you might think of them). By contrast, Tartaglia’s souvenir-aided punch-up was an isolated incident carried out by an individual with no history of political activism and no declared political motives. In an official apology, Tartaglia stated that he had ‘acted alone [with no] form of militancy or political affiliation’ (1).

Italian interior minister Roberto Maroni insisted that the attack was premeditated. He told parliament that Tartaglia had developed a rage against the PM over a long period. He then linked Tartaglia’s ‘mad action’ to a wider climate of hostility and warned that it might prompt similar attacks on prominent personalities in the future (2). The leader of Berlusconi’s parliamentary party in the chamber of deputies, Fabrizio Cicchitto, claimed, dramatically, that ‘the hand of he who attacked Berlusconi was primed by a pitiless campaign of hatred’ (3).

Cicchitto’s comment was aimed at Berlusconi’s political opponents who have pursued a particularly vitriolic campaign against the prime minister over the past couple of months. Antonio Di Pietro, leader of the small opposition party Italy of Values, has been especially critical of Berlusconi. When he rose to speak in parliament after the attack, members of Berlusconi’s ruling People of Liberty party walked out. Di Pietro condemned the attack on Berlusconi but added that he shares ‘the indignation of citizens who every day see a premier who blocks parliament to pass laws which serve him and only him, while millions of citizens lose their jobs and struggle to make ends meet’ (4).

Undoubtedly, there is significant anger with Berlusconi, following a year of economic stagnation and his avoidance of corruption trials after attempting to pass a law making senior politicians exempt from such charges. His reputation has also been blighted by a string of sex scandals, diplomatic gaffes and his wife’s decision to divorce him. Journalists and judges have been at the forefront of the campaign against the Berlusconi, as the principal opposition parties have struggled to formulate policies to challenge the PM. And earlier this month, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Rome for a ‘No Berlusconi Day’. Despite all this, Berlusconi still enjoys approval ratings of approximately 45 per cent and has large majorities in both houses of parliament.

While Berlusconi and his supporters accuse their opponents of sowing a ‘climate of hatred’, the opponents, in turn, accuse Berlusconi of fomenting a poisonous atmosphere. Rosy Bindi, president of the opposition Democratic Party, said Berlusconi was ‘one of the people who had created a climate of violence’ in Italy (5).

Here in Italy, political debate – before and following the attack on Berlusconi – has been reduced to verbal spats, insult-trading and character assassinations. Politicians, journalists and judges have become increasingly offensive and verbose because they lack coherent and differing political ideas with which to challenge each other. Political opposition has been degraded and replaced by acts of lashing out.

Beyond the halls of politics, the courts and the media, Tartaglia’s attack is being celebrated in a rather degraded fashion. Berlusconi-opponents have placed Tartaglia in a tradition of object-throwing at hated politicians and he has been compared favourably to the Iraqi journalist who chucked a shoe at George W Bush. Fan websites and Facebook groups have sprung up since Sunday’s attack and walls around Italy have been covered by graffiti, with messages such as ‘A medal for Tartaglia’ (6).

Some of the websites and responses are indeed funny, but at a time when we need serious discussion about the economic crisis, energy and other issues that affect the Italian public, these sarcastic and celebratory responses to the attack have been used by figures of authority to justify restrictions on open debate and free speech. Roberto Maroni announced that the Cabinet would discuss two new parliamentary bills. One will look to restrict the freedom of demonstrators to express their views near politicians. The other will deal with groups on the internet who praise Tartaglia (7).

Italy already has some of Europe’s strictest limits on freedom of expression, and now there will potentially be more. ‘What we need is a legal framework for enforcing Italian laws online’, said Maroni (8). Facebook has said it will monitor content dealing with Berlusconi and it has shut down the largest fan page for Tartaglia (9). The actions of facebook are hardly surprising coming, as they do, in the wake of the imminent trial of four Google executives, accused of failing to monitor content depicting bullying on one of its video sites. This is setting a precedent for other internet companies, publications and individuals, who are becoming more likely to self-censor for fear of retribution.

The closure of public forums for discussion and protest – online and offline – will severely restrict political debate. And it is not just sarcastic and humorous and ridiculing responses to Berlusconi’s attack that will be restricted; so will much-needed debate about the very serious problems Italy faces today. It will do nothing to stem the ‘campaign of hate’ which Berlusconi and his supporters have been lamenting over the past week. Instead, the clampdowns will likely lead to more frustration, anger and disillusionment.

After his attack Berlusconi said, tritely, that ‘love always triumphs over envy and hate’ (10), but the prime minister and his government need to drop the clichés and the martyr-image and realise that the only way to stop childish jibes, and senseless lashing out, is by allowing free and open debate. If not, they shouldn’t be surprised the next time a cathedral comes flying their way.

Dominic Standish lectures for the University of Iowa at their CIMBA site in Veneto, Italy. Dominic is writing a book titled Venice in Environmental Peril? Myth and Reality, forthcoming from the University Press of America. Dominic can be contacted at Email him .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Previously on spiked:

Dominc Standish explained why Berlusconi beat the ‘Italian Obama’ and took a critical view of Italy’s pantomime politics. Elsewhere, he criticised the European press coverage of Italy’s 2001 elections. He also explained why we should save Venice. Or read more at spiked issue Europe.

(1) Press Digest, Times of Malta, 15 December 2009

(2) Minister: Attack On Italian Premier Premeditated, RTT News, 15 December 2009

(3) Silvio Berlusconi attack blamed on ‘campaign of hate’, Guardian, 15 December 2009

(4) Berlusconi ‘amazed’ at attack but rivals blame PM for stoking violence, Independent, 15 December 2009

(5) Berlusconi ‘amazed’ at attack but rivals blame PM for stoking violence, Independent, 15 December 2009

(6) ‘Stretta su siti Internet e manifestazioni’, La Repubblica, 16 December 2009

(7) Silvio Berlusconi attack blamed on ‘campaign of hate’, Guardian, 15 December 2009

(8) Proposed web bill sparks censorship row, ANSA News Agency, 16 December 2009

(9) Facebook to monitor Berlusconi content, New York Times, 15 December 2009

(10) Berlusconi sets ‘love over hate’, BBC News Europe, 15 December 2009

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.


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