Italy's Internet activists gathered in front of Rome's ancient Pantheon Thursday to protest a new law they say will throttle freedom of expression on the Web.
The new rule, due to be presented in parliament next week as part of a bill to restrict the use and publication of telephone wiretaps, would oblige all online publications to publish a correction within 48 hours of receiving a request or risk a €12,000 (US $16,000) fine.
Critics say the law would have a particularly devastating effect on citizen bloggers and is intended to protect the interests of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose image has been severely battered by the publication of police telephone taps that have cast an embarrassing light on his unorthodox private life.
Luca Nicotra, secretary of the activist association Agora Digitale, said his organization was calling on all lawmakers to support amendments to the bill that would limit its effects to professional news organizations only.
"A newspaper has the ability to respond to requests that may be illegitimate. The ordinary citizen does not," Nicotra told a crowd of around 100 people gathered in front of the massive Roman temple, which dates from the second century AD.
"It's easy to imagine this instrument being used in an intimidating way," said a leaflet distributed by Agora Digitale at the rally. "Any citizen writing on the web, who doesn't have a newspaper's legal department to defend him, will be induced to accept requests for corrections even when convinced that he has written the truth, causing people to censor themselves in order to avoid the risk of a fine."
Giuseppe Giulietti, an opposition lawmaker and founder of Articolo 21 (www.articolo21.org), an association dedicated to the defense of journalistic freedom, said he would appeal against the law to the European Court of Human Rights if it was passed in its present form by the Italian parliament.
Opponents of the law were setting up a committee of media law specialists to assist bloggers and anyone else who ran into difficulty because of it, Giulietti said. "If there is a democratic emergency we will be present to support you, wherever you are," he said.
Articolo 21 encouraged journalists to take an oath of professional honor pledging to remain faithful to their duty to inform, despite the new legislation. "I swear that ... I will provide any information that is in the public interest and of social importance, " the pledge states in part.
Antonio D'Amati, a media law specialist, encouraged bloggers and journalists to ignore the new rule. "I don't think I'm committing a crime when I tell journalists that they must take no notice of this future law. No one can be convicted for having done their journalistic duty," D'Amati told the protesters, some wearing sticky notes over their mouths bearing the words "No gag."
In an interview with the magazine www.micromega.it, the former president of the Privacy Authority, Stefano Rodota, said the new rule was doubly dangerous for bloggers: The size of the fine was enough to wipe out most normal bloggers and many were liable to miss the 48-hour deadline because they did not update their blogs on a regular basis.
"It's also unsatisfactory that this request for a correction makes no mention of the reality of the facts (shouldn't there be a prior investigation into the accuracy or otherwise of the correction?)," Rodota said.
Antonio Leone, a lawmaker who supports the government, defended the new law, saying it was less severe than a previous bill promoted by the opposition.
"Talking about a 'gagging law' and organizing protest rallies in Rome is a sign that some people want to continue to wallow in gossip, used as a weapon of political struggle," Leone said. "That's a mortal blow to civilization, to democracy and to the right of every individual to privacy."