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Ukraine war causes free speech headache in Italy

Miguel Poiares Maduro is dean of the Católica Global Law School and chair of the European Digital Media Observatory. Fabrizio Tassinari is executive director of the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute and author of “The Pursuit of Governance: Nordic Dispatches on a New Middle Way.”

“TV puts everybody in those boxes, side-by-side. On one side, there’s this certifiable lunatic who says the Holocaust never happened. And next to him is this noted, honored historian who knows all about the Holocaust. And now, there they sit, side-by-side, they look like equals!”

These lines, taken from the film “Man of the Year” in which a comedian ends up being elected president, offer an unexpected Ukraine parallel on how some Italian television outlets have dealt with the ongoing war — demonstrative of a much larger problem regarding pluralism in media coverage.

In the past weeks, this fictional scene has materialized again and again on screens across Italy, in a crescendo of problematic cases since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. TV programs have hosted Russian “journalists” or official representatives as guests, side by side with Italian experts holding the opposite positions, arguing with negligible moderation.

This trend culminated on May 1, when a private channel hosted a 40-minute interview with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, who reiterated long-standing propaganda claims, maintaining that Russia is only hitting military targets in Ukraine, that the Bucha massacre is fake and even that Adolf Hitler was part Jewish. He did so virtually uninterrupted and unchallenged.

Russia may well regard Italy as the soft underbelly of its propaganda machine, a reality that harkens back to the many decades during which the country boasted the largest communist party in Cold War-era Western Europe. Italy’s recent history is replete with documented close ties with Russia and the Soviet Union before it, extending to the political and economic sphere, as well as the cultural establishment.

The trend goes beyond such ties, and is arguably also a result of a broken TV ownership model and public debate culture that has dominated the country ever since former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (incidentally an arch-Russophile himself until now) founded his media empire in the early 1980s.  

The Italian case is illustrative of a fundamental misconception: confusing pluralism with the equal treatment of all opinions in the public space.

Sure, pluralism and free speech are fundamental to democracy. But democracy must also be based on truth, and in a democracy, truth results from pluralism, not from censorship. In the same way, our democratic demand to be heard only subsists if we recognize the equal rights of others. This is what makes democracy the best way to arbitrate and reconcile different preferences.

But at the same time, democracy demands evidence-based truth, and confusing the need to guarantee pluralism with that of giving equal credibility and authority to all opinions is a mistake. In such a setting, there would be no good or bad arguments, no truth or lies, and our opinions and political positions could be distorted accordingly.

Instead, democracy has arbitration and editorial processes — not imposed but resulting from the practice of pluralism itself. Talk shows do not have to give space to anyone who demands freedom of expression; newspapers do not have to publish every letter they receive. In a democracy, citizens should be able to trust the media’s ability to guarantee pluralism on the one hand, and the credibility and veracity of what is said on the other.

Any uncritical defense of pro-Russian positions in the media space abdicates this editorial responsibility , relegating platforms to mere sounding boards. This is the key difference between state-controlled media without the freedom to inform and organizations with editorial independence. It is the main reason why we do not hold the BBC or CNN — which have grilled Russian officials in recent weeks — as equivalent to Russia Today or Sputnik.

The need for the media to report on Ukrainian and Russian positions cannot be confused with the attribution of equal space and treatment. That would be, to revisit “Man of the Year,” as if pluralism demanded any program on the Holocaust must feature an honored historian debating alongside a Holocaust denier. And in Italy, this false equivalence has come dangerously close to reality.

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