Government cuts threaten a slice of Italy's national memory

Radio Radicale

ROME - A radio that has given voice to Italy's institutions for the last 42 years is under threat of closure after the government decided to cut its budget in half, threatening a vital source of information for citizens, journalists and historians.

 Radio Radicale began broadcasting the activities of Italian institutions in 1976 and since 1990 has covered the activities of parliament in exchange for public funding currently worth €12 million a year. In November it was told it would have to make do with €5 million and its contract was being extended for just six months.

 As well as parliament, the radio founded by the Radical Party covers trials, judicial institutions, debates and conferences of all kinds, providing access to the political and cultural life of the nation as it happens, and a digitised record available to everyone on its website afterwards. That public service risks coming to an end on May 21.

 "Let's hope we find a solution in the meantime. We will have only a few weeks' worth of resources available after that date," Paolo Chiarelli, the radio's managing director, told journalists at Rome's foreign press association on Monday. "One outcome could be the sale of Radio Radicale to a commercial operator, to make money out of entertainment."

 The radio receives its funding from the ministry of economic development but its management has been unable to obtain a meeting with the minister, Luigi Di Maio, who does not appear to appreciate the value of the service and has given no indication of how he intends to guarantee its continuation.

 "If there is a plan B it has not been communicated to us," said Alessio Falconio, Radio Radicale's director. "There isn't even a plan A," added Maurizio Turco, the radio's editor and a member of the Radical Party's coordinating committee.

 Mr Turco said a subversive project was under way to undermine the Italian constitution and silence critical voices, citing the Five Star Movement's online consultation to steer the parliamentary conduct of its MPs. The move violated the constitutionally protected freedom of choice of sitting parliamentarians, he said. "A change of heart by the government would not be a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength," he added.

 The radio was originally set up by Radical Party founder Marco Pannella using state funding for his party, which he disapproved of on principle. "Pannella was critical of what he called 'the regime', but he always distinguished between the regime and Italy's institutions," Mr Falconio said.

 The radio established its reputation through live coverage of terrorism trials and the famous drug trafficking trial of TV presenter Enzo Tortora. "It was enough to listen to the recordings of Tortora's accusers to realise there was something wrong there," Mr Falconio said.

 Radio Radicale's trial coverage is particularly valuable in a country where criminality and politics are often only a hair's breadth apart. The management's appeal to the foreign press came on the same day that a Rome court sentenced former mayor Gianni Alemanno to six years imprisonment for corruption, a trial naturally covered in full by the radio.

 Radio Radicale's digitised trial records are now a valuable resource for researchers. The justice ministry also records trials but does not make them available to the public in searchable form. As a result police officers are often sent to the radio to recover trial recordings needed for new investigations.

 "We have recordings of party conferences that the parties themselves don't have," Mr Turco said.

 This is not the first time that Radio Radicale has had to fight for its survival. In 1986 it drew attention to a financial crisis by suspending regular programmes and replacing them with hours of open microphones, broadcasting the uncensored and unmoderated observations of the public in what came to be known as "radio swearwords" -- an anticipation of the hatespeak that periodically swamps today's social media.

 In an age of populism and fake news, Radio Radicale's work in providing citizens with direct access to the inner workings of state institutions is particularly valuable. In theory, much of its role could be performed by the state broadcaster RAI. Radio Radicale's directors say RAI has never fulfilled its public service remit and is incapable of political impartiality. "We cost in a year more or less the equivalent of one day of RAI's professional activity," said CEO Chiarelli, pointing out that the radio has just 52 employees.

 Giovanni Maria Flick, a former justice minister, said Radio Radicale was especially precious in "a moment of mass distraction". Mr Flick told a conference on the radio's financial predicament, ignored completely by RAI: "There is a strong suspicion that they want to eliminate a pluralistic voice that is evidently considered inconvenient. Without pluralism there is no democracy, and viceversa. What is at stake here is the pluralism of sources of information that are free of government control."