An Italian draft law to restrict press reporting of leaked material from police wiretaps would undermine the right to freedom of expression and curb inquiries into corruption, a U.N. rights expert said on Tuesday.
The intervention by Frank La Rue, United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression, ruffled Italy's foreign minister and provided ammunition for opponents of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as parliament prepares to vote on the controversial bill on July 29.
La Rue called for the law to be scrapped or revised, saying planned penalties for journalists and publishers who print transcript leaks before a trial were disproportionate. "These provisions may hamper the work of journalists to undertake investigative journalism on matters of public interest, such as corruption, given the excessive length of judicial proceedings in Italy," La Rue said in a statement.
"If adopted in its current form, it may undermine the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression in Italy."
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said he was "strongly disconcerted and surprised" by La Rue's comments.
"In a liberal and democratic country such as Italy, parliament is sovereign and decides. No one should and can interfere with draft legislation," he said.
The issue has galvanised opposition to Berlusconi at a time when he faces a split in his centre-right coalition and a fight to pass a 25 billion euro austerity package aimed at shoring up Italy's strained public finances.
Leaks of wiretapped conversations involving politicians, businessmen and even a central bank chief have exposed numerous scandals in Italy and provided the press with a wealth of rich material, well before suspects are sent to trial.
Berlusconi says the law is needed to protect privacy, but critics say it is tailor-made to make it almost impossible for media to report on a current corruption probe that has tainted his government and forced the industry minister to resign.
Under the bill, which also restricts the use of wiretaps by police, newspapers would be banned from publishing transcripts or summaries and would face restrictions when reporting on a probe until preliminary investigations are over -- something that can take years in Italy's slow justice system.
"Trial by the media is barbaric, it's not a legal right," Frattini said.
Most Italian newspapers and news bulletins were shut down for the day last Friday as journalists went on strike against the law, which the government says is needed to protect the privacy of individuals from arbitrary investigation.
The outcry has led the government to consider new amendments to the draft bill, which has already been watered down from its original version and approved by the Senate.
ReutersGüncelleme Tarihi: 13 Temmuz 2010, 17:18