Italy scrutinizes public television to avoid Russian propaganda | International

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Respect for plurality is part of the permanent debate within public television. Italy, moreover, lives in the constant obsession of maintaining the balance in the different RAI channels between the different political sensitivities of the Parliament. But in recent weeks, when the war in Ukraine occupies a large part of the programming space, the debate has shifted to what that plurality of opinions should be like and to interested disinformation. Is it legitimate to invite Russian journalists in the pay of the Kremlin to give a side opinion on the conflict on public television? Can a paid commentator qualify the Bucha massacre? The entity that monitors the public media believes not and has now asked to investigate the matter through a parliamentary commission on national security.

The European Union began a parallel war at the end of February against disinformation in the midst of the conflict in Ukraine. The president of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced the veto to two Russian media: the Sputnik news agency and the RT (Russia Today) television network, both financed by the Kremlin. “They will not be able to spread their lies again to justify Putin’s war and divide the European Union,” Von der Leyen announced then. The European regulation now prohibits operators from “disseminating, facilitating or otherwise contributing to the broadcast of any content” and also its distribution on “internet video-sharing platforms or applications, whether new or previously installed.” But in Italy the debate is not settled, and Russian journalists whose impartiality is highly questionable have paraded on television (public or private) for weeks.

The novelty now is that the entity that deals with the surveillance of RAI has asked the parliamentary commission that deals with matters of national security and secret services (Copasir) to take an interest in the issue. Andrea Romano, deputy of the Democratic Party (PD), has led the initiative. “We have already asked that RAI have a code of conduct for talk shows on the subject of war. This conflict is also fought with disinformation and Putin uses it as a military tool. We now ask that Copasir shed light on the national security implications of these discussions. Many of these characters are linked to Russian disinformation”, Romano denounces to this newspaper.

The PD deputy —who lived for several years in Moscow and is a great connoisseur of Russian culture— refers specifically to the appearance on a RAI 3 program (white letter) by Nadana Fridikhsson, journalist philoputinian of the Zvedeva TV television channel, owned by the Russian Defense Ministry. “It is not about imposing any censorship, but about demanding more care on public television and using the criterion of responsibility. In such a tragedy you cannot use the same criterion of plurality. It is as if, in order to talk about the Holocaust, it was proposed to listen to the voice of a victim of the Shoah and that of Goebbels”, he insists.

But the conflict goes back a long way, and it also affected Alessandro Orsini, a professor of political science at LUISS University, with positions critical of Ukraine and favorable to the Russian campaign. Orsini had a salary of 2,000 euros per program, which he finally had to give up due to political pressure. Bianca Berlinguer, renowned presenter of the space, defends what she considers a symptom of plurality. “That journalist had already been invited several times to Mediaset or LA7. No one objected then. But the case blew up when she came to white letter. I myself introduced her as a member of a Russian Defense Ministry television. But public television is always subject to political controversies that have to do with politics and not with the product. Public television must give voice to all opinions, as it is fair to do in a political debate. How far it should go should be decided by journalists, not politics. If it were not so, their autonomy would end. Citizens can only form an opinion through a debate that includes them all, ”she points out.

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Copasir has decided to listen to what the CEO of RAI, Carlo Fuortes, has to say on the issue of Russian journalists on public television. But the debate, at a time when Europe is putting a siege on Russian propaganda, is also extended to private channels such as Rete 4, where Russian journalists such as the putinian Vladimir Soloviev, whose assets in Italy have been seized, the ideologue of Putinism Alexander Dugin, or the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, Maria Zakharova.

Corrado Formigli, experienced journalist and presenter of Piazza Pulita, a program with a large audience on channel LA7 and which has dealt with the conflict with enormous balance, defends the freedom to choose the guests and believes that there should be no difference between public and private channels. “The rules that journalists must set are in deontology and in the limits of ethical and criminal codes. There should be no outside regulator determining who you can invite. If tomorrow I can bring Putin or Lavrov, what do I do? Didn’t I invite him because they are Russian? We are journalists, not state officials who respond to ministerial regulations. It is our job to carry out journalistic mediation so that propaganda does not develop unhindered. And if it were not so, we would be going against the editorial freedom of a newspaper program”, he defends.

The debate outside the public spectrum is somewhat more complex. Antonio Nicita, professor of Economics at Lumsa University, was commissioner of the Authority for Guarantees in Communications (Agicom), the entity that regulates private media in Italy, from 2014 to 2020. And he partly agrees with Formigli that “ It should be the responsibility of the host of the program to adequately contextualize the guests”. But according to Nicita, the problem of private networks with this type of talk show host, as has already happened in the covid-19 pandemic, is that they compete for the audience and need to have “radically antagonistic talk show hosts” to increase viewer attention. “Some talk show from different channels invite television journalists like those that the European Commission has suspended for producing propaganda and false news. And that is not a principle of correct information to the citizen. When someone is admitted to producing false information, disinformation is legitimized. Agicom should make a new appeal to the chains so that they invite people who are not linked to disinformation centers. But the subject, certainly, is delicate”. So much so that the committee dealing with secret services will deal with it in Parliament.

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