Italy’s Di Maio eyes curbs on newspapers’ ad revenues

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[FILES] Luigi Di Maio, leader of Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement, pauses during a news conference in Rome, Italy, on Monday, March 5, 2018. Getty Image

Luigi Di Maio, a key figure in Italy’s populist government, has taken aim at the country’s newspapers, accusing them of “polluting the debate” and threatening to pull advertising by state-owned companies.

“The newspapers… are now polluting the public debate every day and the worst is that they are doing it with public money,” the deputy prime minister wrote on his Facebook page this week.

And he warned that in its next budget, the government was planning “a reduction of indirect state contributions” to the press.

“We are preparing a letter to state-owned companies to ask them to stop paying for newspapers” by purchasing advertising space, wrote Di Maio who heads the populist Five Star Movement (M5S).

Like its founder Beppe Grillo, the anti-establishment M5S is convinced the traditional press is trying to undermine its governing alliance with the far-right League of Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who also serves as deputy prime minister.

Both Di Maio and his party, as well as Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and several League ministers who predominantly communicate through Twitter and Facebook, have unleashed a barrage of attacks on the traditional press in the name of defending “the people” against the establishment.

“This is not journalism, it’s just propaganda seeking to defend the interests of a small elite who think they can continue to control when it rains and when the sun shines,” wrote Di Maio, 32, who serves as labour and economic development minister.

“I don’t read the Italian newspapers to be informed… but only to understand how they want to attack us.”

– Direct line to supporters –
Speaking to AFP, Raffaele Lorusso, secretary general of the FNSI, the Italian National Press Federation, said Di Maio — who only served as an opposition lawmaker before entering government — was “not used to pressure from the press nor to the idea of a free press”.

Both Di Maio and Salvini have used social media to great effect, constantly posting videos on Facebook and messages on Twitter all day long.

“They prefer social media because that way, they can speak directly to their supporters and say whatever they like,” Lorusso said.

In a recent interview, Salvini admitted that one of his Facebook videos had been watched by more than eight million people — “a figure which is much higher than I would have got with traditional media.”

But this latest attack by the head of a party which favours direct democracy via the internet and which likes to regularly denounce the press for “fake news”, has rung alarm bells, with Italian President Sergio Mattarella rushing to its defence.

“The unconditional freedom of the press is a cornerstone and fundamental element of democracy,” he said in remarks to Sicilian journalists on Saturday.

– Free speech as threat –
In an editorial in La Repubblica, veteran journalist Ezio Mauro also said Di Maio’s remarks revealed fear.

“In the western world in which we currently live, the vibrancy of newspapers is considered as an indicator of the health of democracy and civic engagement,” he wrote.

“In Di Maio’s world, newspapers are enemies, intruders, stowaways, parasites,” he said, describing the minister’s threats as “revealing his fear of a free, independent, pluralist and autonomous public opinion.”

Di Maio also took aim at the reform of a controversial EU copyright law that hands more power to news and record companies against internet giants like Google and Facebook.

Backed this week by European lawmakers, Di Maio described it as a “disgrace”, accusing the parliament of the “de facto legalisation of preventative censorship.”

Looking forward to the European Parliament elections in May, Di Maio said it would be a “real pleasure” to see the emergence of a completely new leadership which “wouldn’t even consider passing such rubbish”.