Analysis. In the name of pluralism, they are trying to destroy pluralism. And these paradoxes are not mere abstractions: they will create a new army of workers with precarious jobs, laid-off or unemployed.

Italy’s ‘populist’ government attacks the free press and pluralism

The 5 Stars have resubmitted the amendment aimed at killing off press freedom and pluralism in the publishing industry.

The latest version, bearing the signature of Stefano Patuanelli, the leader of the M5S caucus, was just brought before the Senate Budget Committee, and has indeed been revamped—as announced by the Undersecretary for Publishing, Vito Crimi (M5S)—compared to the first version that had been presented to the Chamber and then withdrawn, which called for cutting all government funds for publishers from Jan. 1, 2020.

The current text enacts a cut of 20 percent in direct contributions for newspapers and magazines for the year 2019, calculated from the difference between the amount expected under the current rules and €500,000. In 2020, the cut is set to rise to 50 percent, in 2021 it will be 75 percent, and by 2022 the funds should be cut to zero.

Starting from 2020, the amendment also repeals Law 230/1990 on payments toward privately owned radio companies carrying out activities consisting in providing information of general interest to the public. This particular provision is tailor-made to severely hurt Radio Radicale.

Among the national daily newspapers that would be affected are Libero, Avvenire, Italia Oggi, il manifesto and il Foglio. Among the local newspapers, we find Roma-Giornale di Napoli, Corriere di Romagna, Voce di Rovigo, Cronache Qui Torino, Latina Oggi, Ciociaria Oggi and Il Quotidiano del Sud.

The President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, has spoken out seven times against these cuts, while the President of the Senate, Elisabetta Alberti Casellati, has expressed her opposition on two occasions. Meanwhile, the President of the Chamber, Robert Fico (M5S), has remained silent. The last two months have brought scathing criticism against this measure from the FNSI and Stampa Romana unions, the Order of Journalists, the Catholic Press Association (FISC), the Italian Federation of Free Publishers (FILE) and the Alliance of Cooperatives.

The Lega had initially come to the defense of pluralism in media. However, as of yesterday, Salvini changed his tune and went on the attack against Avvenire: “The millions in contributions going to it could help a disabled person in need. Whoever doesn’t sell newspapers because they write strange things will find other readers. I think that the freedom of the press must come together with the freedom of the market and trusting the readers.”

That was mere inflammatory rhetoric, because the policies for persons with disabilities are financed through the fund for social policies, to which this government has allotted only €100 million per year for the next three years, which remains below the funding it had before the latest cuts. It was an attempt to score points against a newspaper which has been critical of Salvini’s immigration policies. At its core, one can identify the neoliberal assumption that the readers’ interest coincides with that of the market.

In this neoliberal view, if the newspapers aren’t selling, that just means that readers are choosing other more competitive ones. This is false, since the sales crisis is affecting everyone in print media, starting with the largest newspapers. At issue is the problem of the Internet—an enormous and unresolved problem, at least in Italy.

The amendment is set to cut around €60 million of funding, undermining the work of at least a thousand people, if we count just journalists and printers and ignore auxiliary personnel, whose number comes to around 10,000 jobs. This potential social crisis will put the government in the position of having to respond with the existing institutional framework, and, most importantly, with public financing. For now, this inevitable outcome is being swept under the rug in the public statements by the Minister of Labor and Development, Luigi Di Maio himself, whose task, theoretically speaking, should be to protect jobs, and even try to create some.

It seems there are things that are more important than actually saving money, namely, the propaganda inspired by what George Orwell in 1984 called “doublethink”: the ability to state a fact together with its opposite. In this case, in the name of pluralism, they are trying to destroy pluralism. And these paradoxes are not mere abstractions: they will create a new army of workers with precarious jobs, laid-off or unemployed.

On Saturday, the president of the Molise region, Donato Toma, reiterated his call for a round table between the regions and the government “in order to avert the danger that many media outlets would end up bankrupt and be forced to close.” Francesco Minisci, the president of the National Magistrates Association (ANM), spoke out against the possibility that Radio Radicale would be shut down: “We hope that it can continue its work of public service.”

According to Di Maio, such an outcome can be avoided with the latest form of the amendment, which is “giving them time to accelerate their activities aimed at earning advertising revenues.” However, no one has any intention at this point to propose a reform of the advertising market.

With this course of action, the Lega-M5S government is playing to the interests of the big publishers. As FILE pointed out, none of the top largest newspapers is receiving state contributions: these big publishers, “ever more in crisis about print run numbers and advertisers, are excited about taking over the advertising market share of the small publishers.”

If this attempt is successful and eliminates even the last vestiges of funding aimed at guarding against a market dominated by oligopolies, the government will have put their thumb on the scales in favor of these big business groups. They say “populism,” but they just mean good old capitalism.

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