Italy's senate passes wiretap restrictions bill

Last Updated: Fri, Jun 11, 2010 12:00 hrs

/AKI) Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi won a major victory when Italy's Senate passed a controversial law to restrict wiretapping and impose fines on news organisations that publish leaked information on criminal probes.

The upper house of the Italian parliament backed the measure 164 to five Thursday. The bill now goes to the lower house of parliament or Chamber of Deputies for final approval.

The law forces investigators to have more evidence to begin a wiretap and limit most intercepts to 75 days from 18 months previously. It imposes fines for media companies that publish the content of wiretaps.

Berlusconi staked the future of his government on the bill by passing it with a confidence vote. He accuses Italian investigators of abusing the power to conduct surveillance, calling it a violation of privacy.

Under the new rules, investigators must get a wiretap warrant from a three-judge panel, instead of one judge previously.

When an investigator wants to eavesdrop on priests, the Vatican must be informed. Special permission also must be granted to tap conversations of members of parliament.

Last year, magazine l'Espresso published recordings of an alleged conversation between Berlusconi and a prostitute. She had used her cell phone to secretly record their conversations and the tapes became part of an investigation in the southern city of Bari in which the prime minister was not involved.

Among the recordings was Berlusconi telling her to wait for him 'on the big bed' in his Rome residence while he showered.

Critics of the law say it curtails freedom of the press and makes it more difficult for investigators to do their job.

Before Thursday's vote, Anna Finocchiaro, the opposition Senate leader, and the rest of her group walked out in protest.

'My group will take part in the confidence vote because it's clear that today will be the start of the massacre of freedom,' she said before leaving the Senate chamber.

The country's police chief, Antonio Manganelli, and chief anti-mafia prosecutor Pietro Grasso have said the law could affect the ability of investigators to catch criminals, especially mobsters.