WIKIPEDIA AT RISK IN ITALY: IS DEMOCRACY DYING HERE?

Silvio Berlusconi - CaricatureThe true face of Berlusconi Image by DonkeyHotey via Flickr
Wikipedia risks shutdown in Italy, along with one of the most basic democratic rights: the right to freedom of expression! 

Yes, Wikipedia, that most respected, unpolitical source of information, our beloved Internet encyclopedia!

It has its weaknesses and limitations, but no one will disagree that it is by far one of the most useful sources of information and in this early 21st century, it has already replaced for most people - if not for everybody - recourse to the printed Encyclopedia.

Wikipedia blocked all its articles on living Italians, politicians, artists, celebrities - and chief among them Berlusconi - as a 48 hour measure of self-censure to bring home the point to its Italian users of what impact the Government's new wiretap decree would have once approved by Parliament.

If you do a search on Wikipedia you will come across a notice explaining why the information is blocked: under the new law, anyone feeling unhappy with information could demand an amendment. "The obligation to publish on our site the correction... without even the right to discuss and verify the claim" they wrote, "is an unacceptable restriction of the freedom and independence of Wikipedia." 

This obligation is contained in a draft privacy law intended to restrict police wiretaps of the kind that have embarrassed Berlusconi, caught at organizing his famous bunga-bunga parties with young girls - presumably paid whores that his entourage procured him.

He's been trying to tighten Italy's privacy laws since 2008 and it looks like he's about to succeed now.

Unless some Parliamentarians, in the secret voting, decide not to follow instructions from Berlusconi (and his ally Bossi of the Northern League)...But don't kid yourself, they may exempt Wikipedia and blogs from the law, but they will vote most of it through!

Everything should be decided on October 6th and perhaps the decree "ammazzablog" (blog killing) will be amended.

But does that mean that one of democracy's basic freedoms will be preserved?

I don't think so and let me explain why.

Sure, the popular reaction in Italy has been swift and that is certainly most encouraging. It has ranged from Italian protesters wearing gags in front of Parliament to Facebook protest pages where within a few hours over 100,000 people - and possibly at this time of writing, close to a million - have signed.

The press reacted too, and all Italian periodicals had something to say, from Corriere della Sera to La Stampa, publishing over 1,000 articles related to the issue. With just one obvious exception: Il Giornale that unsurprisingly came to the defense of Berlusconi's wiretap law - unsurprisingly because it is owned by Berlusconi's brother. 

The Italian blogosphere also amply resonated with protest. For a vivid example of the ire this has stirred against Berlusconi, click here.

Setting the popular reaction aside, how solid is democracy in Italy? 

Consider the difficulty the Italian political system is encountering in getting rid of Berlusconi. 

He is probably the most unpopular Prime Minister in all of Italy's post-war History. Contempt for this man is universal. I know, I live in Italy and I see it everywhere, in bars, coffee shops, markets, newspapers, blogs... 

He's made promises of reform and he has maintained none.  People are tired of his empty promises.

He hasn't even solved the revolting scandal of thrash disposal in Naples. He sent in the army to clean the city, but didn't solve the problem at its root. Two years later, the city is still struggling with mounting garbage in its streets and has yet to find a way to dispose of it in the face of a corrupt and inept municipal and regional government.

True, he's got a couple of effective ministers in his government: Tremonti (finance) and Marroni (interior). You may not like them but they manage to get things done...up to a point. 

The immigration situation is for the moment under control (or should I say under wraps?) but it could burst in the open any moment. The financial situation is getting worse by the minute as Greece sinks under the weight of its debt. And everybody wonders whether Italy is not the next Greece.

Italian banks, with a few exceptions, may appear relatively healthy but it's only an appearance of health. In fact, they hold Italian bonds - but Italian debt is not just the State's, but also the regions' and municipalities. Cities like Milan and Rome have accumulated huge debts that no one is talking about. Yet they are there, as threatening as the Italian State debt. 

We've recently seen this regional debt phenomena burst open in Portugal (in Madeira) and in Spain. Don't believe it isn't going to come into the open in Italy! That's when Moody's and the rating agencies will really get to work. I bet they'll bring down Italy to B level!

In this coming financial storm - that could very well cause a world-wide recession - how will the Italian political class behave? What will they do? 

Very little or nothing. Why? 

Because they are hopelessly corrupt. They don't vote Berlusconi out because they are attached to their privileges - ranging from a ridiculously high monthly income and pension rights to small things like a free cell phone and free train rides and official cars. They certainly don't want to go to early elections and lose all the privileges!

They don't want a parliamentarian reform that would reduce the number of parliamentarians: the more, the merrier!

They love the wiretap law because it would set them free to say anything they like to their buddies on their cost-free cell phones without fearing any prosecution.

They will never vote the kind of profound reforms needed to balance the budget - like a real overhaul of the pension system or reduction in the number of state employees - because it would alienate most of their electors.
If you don't believe me, consider that the Italian Parliament is about to increase the number of its own employees (by 400) using an internal "leggina" that would allow it to bypass the process of public approval and selection. A great way to give out jobs to family and friends! 

In this climate of corruption and clientelism, how do you think major issues like the sovereign debt crisis can be handled?
How I think it's going to be handled will be the subject of a future blog post, but in the meantime I'd love to hear what you think!


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