Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's cabinet approved a bill on Friday that would restrict courts' use of phone taps to investigate crimes and introduce jail sentences for journalists publishing wiretaps.
The conservative government says Italian courts abuse the use of phone taps and order more of them than the rest of Europe or the United States. Berlusconi promised in the campaign for April's election to impose tough restrictions on their use.
"In America they authorise 1,700 of them (a year) whereas we carry out 125,000," said Berlusconi's spokesman Paolo Bonaiuti.
It is not just the centre right that dislikes phone taps.
Berlusconi's predecessor Romano Prodi said a year ago that "whole pages of newspapers and hours of TV" dedicated to phone taps risked undermining faith in Italy's public institutions.
Prosecutors and anti-graft campaigners say the bill, which should pass easily through parliament thanks to Berlusconi's majority, will gag the media and handicap court investigations.
Some of Italy's biggest recent scandals first emerged from media transcripts of wiretaps, like the insider trading scandal that brought down Bank of Italy chief Antonio Fazio in 2005 and the "calciopoli" soccer match-rigging scandal in 2006.
Transcripts of calls by the owner of a private Milan clinic are at the centre of a current probe into doctors performing unneeded surgery to charge more money from insurers.
The Berlusconi family's Mediaset empire has been the subject of court probes using phone taps, leading some critics to say the bill is aimed at protecting Mediaset businesses.
Justice Minister Angelino Alfano said it was meant to "protect citizens' privacy and regulate the wiretap system, which had degenerated and violated people's privacy too often".
The bill would limit the use of wiretaps to investigations of serious crimes carrying jail terms of more than 10 years, or half that if they are crimes against the state.
It would limit the period for which phones can be tapped to three months, and pin down which conversations can be recorded.
Journalists publishing transcripts of wiretaps would face suspended jail sentences of up to three years.
Alfano said the bill respected European Union and Italian norms protecting the right to privacy.
Centre-right senator Gaetano Quagliariello said "over a million people have had their phones tapped. Our country uses this more than any other in Europe and probably the world".
One anti-Mafia prosecutor in Sicily, Palermo Ingroia, said the bill could hamper efforts to combat the Cosa Nostra.
"Nowadays about 70 percent of investigations into organised crime are based on telephone taps so any limitation threatens the efficiency of this investigative tool," he said, adding that wiretaps monitoring "lesser crimes" often led to major busts.
Last Mod: 13 Haziran 2008, 17:53