Open political debate in any country requires that those who set the rules for television, newspapers and the internet are as free as possible from political bias—an issue that played a central role in the recent political history of Italy under former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
But now a grouping of Italian non-governmental organisations, calling itself the Open Media Coalition (OMC), is pushing for reform in the way that Italy selects its media regulators. Set up only a few weeks ago with the support of the Open Society Foundations, the coalition has just scored a significant victory, with Italy’s parliament taking its first steps towards ensuring more openess in a traditionally opaque system.
OMC wants to bring Italian procedures in line with international standards and best practice, and its “Vogliamo Trasparenza” campaign (“We want Transparency”, http://vogliamotrasparenza.it), is targeting four leading public agencies: the Communications Regulatory Authority (AGCOM); the Data Protection Agency (Garante della Privacy); RAI, the state-owned public service broadcaster; and the Antitrust Authority, which serves as the the regulation and competition authority for the communication industries. In the coming weeks, the Italian parliament and government are due to appoint the members of all four of these public bodies for a new term.
In the past, candidates for these bodies have been chosen by their political affiliation, rather than on the basis of any relevent competence and skills. The appointment procedures have been conducted in secrecy, without public hearings and with no publication of the candidates’ career history, and absolutely no consultation with civil society. These shortcomings were highlighted recently by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue, who has held consultations with OMC. He has urged the government and parliament to open up the process, by providing public information on the candidates and their careers, and allowing open public consultations with civil society. So far the government has not responded.
Following sustained media coverage and public debate generated by the campaign, parliament postponed the appointment procedures for AGCOM and the Data Protection Agency from late May to early June. More importantly, the parliament set a deadline by which all the prospective candidates must submit their career histories, which must be forwarded to all the members of Parliament—ensuring that all the candidates are properly known in advance of the decision, something that has never been done in the past.
The parliament’s decision still falls short of the higher standards of transparency and accountability sought by the Open Media Coalition. But it marks a significant step in the right direction. The campaign’s remaining objectives include the publication online of the list of candidates and their details, and requiring each candidate to issue a conflict of interest statement. We are also pressing for the same level of transparency for the appointment of the Antitrust Authority and RAI.
More broadly, the Vogliamo Trasparenza campaign will continue to push for the widest possible public and political involvement in the process of appointments at the four public authorities.