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Wikipedia closes in Italy after Silvio Berlusconi 'gagging' bid

An amendment to the Bill would see journalists jailed for between six months and three years if they published 'irrelevant' wiretaps

The Italian version of Wikipedia has closed in protest at a plan to introduce a gagging law widely seen an attempt to spare the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, further embarrassment following the publication of his wiretapped conversations in the media.

The proposals would oblige websites to change content within 48 hours if people or organisations they mentioned complained of errors or defamation. Even centre-right politician Giulia Bongiorno, who was responsible for carrying the law though parliament, disowned it after Mr Berlusconi's PDL party succeeded in adding an amendment that would see journalists jailed for between six months and three years if they published wiretaps deemed "irrelevant".

The government revived the draft Bill, which had been languishing in parliament for more than a year, at a time when a seemingly endless supply of leaked telephone interceptions have added to the Prime Minister's political woes. According to wiretapped conversations published by the Italian media, the 75-year old billionaire has bragged about having sex with eight girls in one night before adding that he was only Prime Minister in his "spare time". In another wiretap reported by the press, the Prime Minister used a vulgar and sexist phrase to describe the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

After abdicating responsibility for the draft Bill, Ms Bongiorno, the head of the parliamentary justice commission, said: "I no longer recognise anything in this text." She blamed the changes on Mr Berlusconi's direct intervention.

Ms Bongiorno, the lawyer who successfully defended Raffaele Sollecito in his appeal against the conviction of murdering British student Meredith Kercher, and who forms part of the breakaway centre-right FLI party, originally supported measure to curb the avalanche of judicial wiretaps that find their way into newspapers before trials or even before criminal charges were laid.

But she said the proposals had become a law for the Prime Minister's benefit, "with no bearing on the problems of ordinary people" at a time when urgent action was needed to beat the financial crisis. Protesters wearing gags have been seen outside parliament in Rome this week.

It emerged yesterday that compromise had been reached that would see the law applied only to registered online news services and not to amateur blogs. Despite this, Wikipedia Italia remained offline saying that its content would be not be available before a parliamentary debate this morning.

In an open letter to its Italian readers, Wikipedia said: "Today, unfortunately, the very pillars on which Wikipedia has been built – neutrality, freedom, and verifiability of its contents – are likely to be heavily compromised...

"The obligation to publish on our site corrections... without even the right to discuss and verify the claim, is an unacceptable restriction on the freedom and independence of Wikipedia."