Italy tightens privacy rules after paparazzi scam


ROME - A scam in which paparazzi photographs were used to blackmail Italian politicians, TV stars and footballers has led regulators to toughen privacy rules and threaten journalists with jail.

Italian magazines, often full of stories of the social and sexual indiscretions of the rich and famous, must stop spreading gossip that is not strictly in the public interest, Italy's privacy regulator ruled on Friday.

Journalists now face sentences of between three months and two years if they publish news which invades people's privacy, especially in the "sexual sphere" of their lives.

The "Paparazzi-gate" scandal has been rumbling on in the media since Monday when the head of a photographic agency was arrested on suspicion of blackmailing stars with compromising pictures that, unless they paid up, would be sold to the press.

Footballers Francesco Totti and David Trezeguet were among the victims of the scam, as was Barbara Berlusconi, the daughter of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who paid 20,000 euros to prevent pictures of her being printed.

But the regulator only moved in after the scandal hit the highest level of Italian politics when a newspaper identified one victim of the blackmail scam as Silvio Sircana, the spokesman for Prime Minister Romano Prodi's government.

Il Giornale, a center-right daily run by Berlusconi's brother reported that a photographer was hawking photographs of Sircana talking to a transvestite prostitute.

Prodi rushed to the defense of Sircana, a key aide and one of Italy's most visible public figures since the center-left beat Berlusconi at an election a year ago. "He was victim of an attack that is not worthy of a serious country," Prodi said.

Even Berlusconi, who has often complained of being victim of abuse by the media, condemned the episode. "The way things are going, it's the victims of blackmail who are being put in the dock," he said.

At the center of the scandal is Fabrizio Corona, the head of the photographic agency, who was one of 12 people arrested.

In a phone conversation with his wife, recorded by investigators and reported in Italian media, Corona expressed shame about working as a paparazzi -- a word coined in the film La Dolce Vita to refer to intrusive press photographers.

"I am a piece of shit. I ruin people's lives but soon when I will have made enough money I'll retire," Corona said.

Berlusconi has said his 22-year-old daughter has nothing to hide and that the pictures of her with a friend outside a nightclub, which she has described as "ugly" rather than incriminating, will be published.

When asked who would publish them, the media baron quipped: "The highest bidder."