Pirate seizes Italy's unguarded airwaves

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A pirate is at large in northern Italy. No, he is not menacing ships on the high seas, nor is he roaming the majestic old port of Venice. This is a pirate with an acute sense of the media-obsessed times, and he is striking at the state where it hurts most - right in the middle of the main evening news.

Three times in the last week, viewers in the north-eastern Veneto region have been blasted with several minutes of secessionist propaganda during the eight o'clock bulletin on the flagship state channel RAI Uno.

Each time, the sound has gone dead and a man calling himself the Pirate Doge has railed against the "rotten and corrupt" Italian state, urging his "indomitable fellow patriots of the Veneto" to rise up in revolt against the colonialist government of Rome.

It happened first in Venice, then in Treviso, then in Verona. Each time the saboteurs have hijacked a state broadcasting transmitter, apparently without difficulty and with increasing impunity. The news from Albania and Israel has been drowned out by a call to join an independence demonstration in Venice on 12 May, the 200th anniversary of the fall of the Venetian Republic. This was the moment in history, according to local secessionists, when the Veneto's enslavement by outside occupiers began.

All of this smacks of the colourful agitprop of Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League and godfather of Padania, the hitherto mythical new country made up of the richest of Italy's northern regions. It has Mr Bossi's love of defiance and his perverse sense of humour.

But Mr Bossi himself may not actually be behind the stunt. Instead, what we could be seeing is a new frontier in northern separatism - the quite distinct secessionist aspirations of the Veneto region.

The Veneto is where the League movement began in the late-1970s, and it has become the most radical region by far in its hatred of government, and especially of taxation, imposed by Rome.

The protest has particular poignancy, since the Italian government is about to embark on its umpteenth round of budget austerity to try to qualify for European Monetary Union on the first go. The separatist message is simple: why should we fork out more taxes and sacrifice our welfare provisions when we in the north are ready to join Europe but the south is not?

The television pirate is not the only one trumpeting this message. Mr Bossi was in fine form at a rally in Milan over the weekend, describing Italy as a fascist, colonialist state and promising independence for Padania on 14 September 14. "The government of Padania will have to decide... if the police of the north will march with submachine guns slung over their shoulders," he warned in provocative fashion. "We are decent people, but please, my Roman friends, don't piss around with us any more."

The judiciary, meanwhile, is taking a renewed interest in Mr Bossi's friends, and the Pirate Doge in particular. Magistrates have opened four separate investigations into the intercepted news broadcasts, one for each of the incidents and an extra one, for good measure, into the phenomenon of "instigation to subvert the unity of the Italian state".

Mainstream politicians in the north have warned that the Pirate Doge is not an isolated phenomenon, and is likely to strike again at any time.

Padua and Bergamo are top of the guess-list for his next target. Curious viewers simply have to tune in and wait for the show to roll on.