By Philip Pullella
ROME, ITALY - Italian media protested on Friday - with one national newspaper running a blank front page - against a law curbing police wiretaps and imposing fines for news organisations that publish transcripts.
The law, which was passed a first hurdle with a confidence vote in the Senate on Thursday, is hotly contested not only by most media but also by magistrates who say it will greatly hamper their fight against corruption and organised crime.
The left-leaning La Repubblica ran a front page with no news but only tiny "post-it" style yellow memo reading "The gagging law will deny citizens the right to be informed".
"We are running a blank front page to tell readers ... that democracy has been short-circuited," La Repubblica said in an editorial by its editor in chief, Ezio Mauro.
Corriere della Sera called it "a dark day" for justice and L'Unita, paper of the largest opposition party, ran its headline with typeface that was used when Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini ran Italy with an iron fist and controlled the media.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi says the new rules are needed to protect privacy, but the opposition accuses the government of scrambling to cover up corruption with yet another tailor-made law that follows measures to shield him from prosecution while in office.
The journalists' union has called a strike for July 9 and vowed "all-out, unending resistance".
Opposition parties say they are ready to take their appeal to the constitutional court if the law passes in its current form in the lower house Chamber of Deputies, which is widely expected because the centre right has a majority there too.
La Stampa of Turin said the law was intended to "lower the curtain" on the reporting of scandals and rejected assertions by the Berlusconi government that it would protect privacy.
Il Fatto called it "a criminal law for criminals".
The bill had languished in parliament for months.
But the government quickly dusted it off after newspapers printed leaked transcripts from a high-profile graft probe into public works contracts that has tainted Berlusconi's cabinet and forced Industry Minister Claudio Scajola to resign.
Friday's newspapers dedicated much space to the past political scandals - some directly involving Berlusconi - that would not have come to light under the new proposed rules.
Magistrates, who are planning their own strike against the law, say many high-profile arrests, particularly of elusive
Mafia fugitives, would not have been possible without the help of phone intercepts.
The U.S. Justice Department has also expressed concern over the law's effect on joint investigations of organised crime.
Under the draft, magistrates can order wiretaps only if they have serious evidence that a crime has been committed.
They would have to be approved by a panel of three judges and would only last up to 75 days. Extensions would be possible only in increments of three days at a time.
Special authorisation would be needed to tap the phones of parliamentarians and priests.
Media would be banned from publishing transcripts or summaries and face restrictions when reporting on a probe until preliminary investigations are over - something that can take years in Italy's slow justice system.
Publishers who violate the law could be fined up to 450,000 euros (US$603,800).
Journalists risk up to three years in jail. --REUTERS