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Beyond Berlusconi

Populist and authoritarian, with policies and rhetoric on immigrants and asylum seekers that licence racism; sustained in office by an electoral system made by and for the political class. Silvio Berlusconi’s government isn’t the only present or recent government in Europe that could be described this way. True, the government of the Partito della Liberta, […]

February 11, 2010
11 min read

Populist and authoritarian, with policies and rhetoric on immigrants and asylum seekers that licence racism; sustained in office by an electoral system made by and for the political class. Silvio Berlusconi’s government isn’t the only present or recent government in Europe that could be described this way.

True, the government of the Partito della Liberta, with fascists in several key ministries and the prime minister controlling almost all the country’s main TV stations, through either his political or his business power, is an extreme case. But the rest of Europe would be wise to pay attention to the way that it is being opposed. In the main, with the exception of the relatively new Italia dei Valori, opposition is not being organised through the traditional political institutions.

It was through Facebook that half a million demonstrators came to Rome on ‘No Berlusconi Day’. And it is through action largely independent of the trade union structures that employees are occupying many workplaces to save their jobs.

Here Red Pepper looks at two such examples of the new opposition forces. Vittorio Longhi reports on a wide informal coalition of church, human rights, media, union and local community organisations opposing the kind of racism that led to the recent forced removal of immigrant workers from Rosarno in the south of Italy. And Giulio D’Orema reports on the work of a brave investigative journalist, Marco Travaglio, who Berlusconi’s allies recently attacked as a ‘media terrorist’.

Standing with the migrants

‘In the years to come, Rosarno will be a cursed name that will echo in the internet cafes of Lagos, in the Skype communications from Accra, in the intercontinental phone calls with Ouagadougou.’ Antonello Mangano was reporting for the radical Rome-based magazine Carta from the hospital in the citrus-growing town of Rosarno in the south of Italy just after 1,000 or so mainly African fruit pickers had been bussed out of the area after attacks by local residents. The racist violence came after a protest by these casual workers over a drive-by shooting at the squalid camp that served as their ‘home’ outside the city. It’s a wretched story that says a lot about what is happening in Italy at present.

The growing racism is a product of deeper problems, including lawlessness over questions of employment – the fruit pickers have been effectively working as slaves for companies that court documents show to be in the hands of criminal syndicates. Racism, including among the police, is legitimised, if not encouraged, by a government that is virulently anti-immigrant in both words and actions.

‘The left wants a multi-ethnic society – we don’t,’ says Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. ‘We have to be bold and resolute against clandestine immigration,’ says the interior minister Roberto Maroni. Alongside these declarations come immigration laws that make it harder and harder for migrants to live and work legitimately in Italy and that de facto discriminate against migrants in terms of employment and social rights.

The immigration issue has also been linked by the government to that of security, and last spring Maroni introduced new legislation to back up a new ‘hard-line’ approach, driving back to Libya boatloads of Africans intercepted in southern Sicily’s open waters.

The events at Rosarno warn of a wider trend. Since 2007 there have been more than 300 serious violent attacks on migrants, according to a report on racism issued by the NGO Lunaria. The list includes locals launching firebombs at Roma camps in Ponticelli, near Naples, and the beating of a Ghanese student in Parma by the municipal police, who wrote ‘Emmanuel Nigger’ on his documents.

A diverse coalition

So who, then, is opposing all of this? Certainly not the fragmented centre-left parties, who fear losing middle-class support if they show solidarity with migrants, especially at a time of recession and job losses. Nor has the UN, the Council of Europe or even the Vatican’s condemnation of politicians’ racism-fuelling messages stirred the Democratic Party, a merger of former communists and Christian democrats, into action.

Yet there is a wide, diverse and informal coalition of social forces, institutions and media groups launching a counter attack. In 2009, a broad-based national campaign against racism was supported by 27 human rights, left-wing and Catholic groups, the three main trade unions and the UNHCR. ‘Don’t be afraid’ was the slogan written on posters beneath a young Roma boy’s smiling face. The campaign aimed at demolishing prejudice and stereotypes of Arabs, Roma people and Africans, the most targeted groups of migrants in Italy. It also amassed signatures for an anti-racism manifesto based on the principles of the Italian constitution and the universal declaration of human rights.

Since 2008, the Italian journalists’ union has promoted an ethical code, the Carta di Roma, against the biased words deployed when reporting on migration. ‘Refugee’, ‘irregular’, ‘clandestine’, ‘foreigner’, and ‘migrant’ are all used as synonyms by the majority of the media. With the help of university research units, the union has created a media-watch project to report on the portrayal of immigrants and media distortion such as linking immigration to crime and violence.

But it’s at the very local level that some of the most important work is being done to counter racism and integrate migrants. A decade ago, in the small village of Riace in Calabria, just a few miles from Rosarno, the centre-left mayor Mimmo Lucano decided to welcome refugees. After being almost deserted for 50 years, Riace now has nearly 2,000 inhabitants. It has been repopulated and revived by Kurds, Nigerians, Eritreans and Somalis. Lucano also helped to resettle a group of Palestinian-Iraqi refugees from the no man’s land along the border between Iraq and Syria.

This model was adopted by neighbouring villages, including Stignano and Caulonia, which offered houses and jobs to refugees and migrants who arrived in Lampedusa. And in 2009 the regional government of Calabria adopted the first, and only, law in Italy to integrate refugees through small local projects of sustainable development, from housing and tourism to agriculture and artisanship.

Vittorio Longhi is an Italian journalist, writing for Il Manifesto and Repubblica. Antonello Mangano’s full Carta article is available at

Democracy’s watchdog

One of the first moves of Berlusconi’s allies after the Milan attack on the Italian prime minister was to hurl vitriol at an investigative journalist without political allegiance. His name is Marco Travaglio. They accused this journalist, whose characteristic style is a cool, unelaborated presentation of the facts, of ‘instigating a climate of hatred’. They called him a ‘media terrorist’.

This was but the latest failed attempt to discredit and censor Travaglio, who has become not just one of Berlusconi’s most damaging critics but also a well-known public figure. It was typical of the censorship that Berlusconi has tried persistently but unsuccessfully to impose on journalistic critics since the publication in 2001 of Travaglio’s L’odore dei Soldi (‘The Smell of Money’), soon after Berluconi’s election as prime minister. In this bestselling book Travaglio documented Berlusconi’s connections with the mafia. After Travaglio had presented his evidence of the mafia origins of Berlusconi’s initial business capital in a 20-minute interview with comedian Lutazzi, the

newly-elected PM ordered the sacking of Luttazzi and a couple of other popular TV journalists.

Travaglio has persisted, publishing well-documented books (two per year since 2004) about the PM’s legal problems, the threat he represents for freedom of expression and his governments’ wrongdoings. The reward for his work has been a stream of defamation cases – all of which he has won.

Books and regular appearances on the website of Beppe Grillo – the comedian-cum-voice of a disparate movement, symbolically and literally giving two fingers to the political class – did not satisfy the determination of Travaglio and his colleagues to transform Italy’s politics and press. Last September, he and others founded a new daily newspaper, Il Fatto Quotidiano. It now sells more than 100,000 copies per day, mainly as a result of internet promotion.

The paper is based on the principle that the media should be democracy’s watchdog. It gives a voice to those who want laws to be respected, first of all by the politicians that make them. It investigates and exposes MPs from across the political spectrum (although it does not address wider social and economic problems).

The paper is closely associated with the growing opposition party Italia dei Valori. The party was founded by the former judge Antonio di Pietro, who played a leading role in the trials of 1992 that exposed corruption throughout the political class and brought down the parties that had ruled Italy since the second world war, along with the Socialist Party of Bettino Craxi, the political protector of Berlusconi. It was after this that di Pietro, under relentless attack from Berlusconi and his allies, decided to abandon the judiciary and found the party.

Like Il Fatto, Italia dei Valori focuses almost exclusively on issues of democratic representation, corruption and the rule of law. While Berlusconi and his regime is the main target, the party and newspaper are often at odds also with the opposition – for instance, regarding direct government control over state television.

Not of the left

Although Marco Travaglio is one of Berlusconi’s strongest opponents, he is not a journalist of the left. He would resist political labelling, but it is interesting that he comes from the Catholic right. This runs counter to the normal pattern of Italian politics. The public generally sees criticisms of prominent politicians as ideologically motivated. So if someone says that Berlusconi is unfit to rule Italy, it is seen as being because it’s a left-leaning – or possibly a communist – journalist, not because there are very good reasons why the PM is unfit for his job.

Travaglio was born in Turin in 1964 and began his journalistic career freelancing for local Catholic publications. In the late 1980s he worked for his mentor Indro Montanelli (1909-2001), at one point a close ally of Berlusconi. (In 2005 Travaglio published a book with the title Montanelli and Berlusconi, a Great and a Small Man.) Montanelli had been one the most prominent anti-communist right-wing intellectuals for decades. At the time Travaglio began working with him, he was the director of Berlusconi’s daily Il Giornale. Travaglio got a job as a Turin correspondent for the paper.

When Berlusconi entered politics in 1993 – some say to protect his own business interests – Montanelli strongly protested. This was, first, for the obvious reason that his friend had too much media power in his hands, but also because, as he used to say, ‘as much as Berlusconi is a great editor, he would be a disastrous PM – he’s a man who believes in his own lies’. Montanelli abandoned Il Giornale, the newspaper he founded 20 years before, and started a new, short-lived daily called La Voce. Travaglio also joined this venture, until it closed a year later.

Last year was one of Berlusconi’s most difficult in government. Not only has he failed to silence critics – though he has sought maximum advantage from the attack on him in December – but he now faces a threat to his TV monopoly. Ironically, the challenge comes from Sky TV. (Italian leftists give a hollow laugh at the fact that in their country Murdoch is effectively an ally.)

Berlusconi also faces trials for corruption that he is doing his best to sabotage. The case with potentially the most serious consequences is the one associated with the British lawyer David Mills, who has already been found guilty of being bribed by Berlusconi. Here he is stalling, so as to make use of the law passed by his own government requiring that financial charges are dealt with within seven years. Berlusconi has declared that he will also try to change the constitution to ensure that he remains beyond the reach of the law.

There is no doubt that Berlusconi retains great popularity among some sections of Italian society. But he also faces widespread opposition – which is strengthened by the facts so scrupulously put together on the keyboard of Marco Travaglio and now disseminated through the daily newspaper Il Fatto.

Giulio D’Orema writes for Index on Censorship and for the Italian blog

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