ROME (Reuters) - Italy's privacy authority on Tuesday suspended transmission of a satirical TV programme which found widespread drug use among politicians, but the decision only fanned the storm created by the show's report.
The programme, Le Iene, announced on Monday it had secretly tested 50 lower house deputies for illegal substances and found almost one third had taken drugs in the previous 36 hours, 12 of them testing positive for cannabis and four for cocaine.
The latest exploit by the Iene (the Hyenas), well known for pranks that embarrass public figures, was on the front page of most of Italy's newspapers on Tuesday, with politicians' reactions ranging from satisfaction to anger.
A reporter for the programme, pretending to be an interviewer for a non-existent satellite TV show, approached the deputies for their views on the 2007 draft budget, while a bogus make-up artist dabbed their brow between filming.
The cells collected by the dabbing were then tested for drugs. Le Iene is shown on Italia Uno, one of the three national channels owned by Mediaset, the broadcaster controlled by the family of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
The decision by the privacy authority to block the programme's transmission, scheduled for Tuesday evening, because the tests had been conducted in a secret and illicit manner.
Several of the 50 deputies tested appealed for the programme to be aired, and right-wing member of the European Parliament, Alessandra Mussolini, the granddaughter of wartime dictator Benito Mussolini, said the decision showed Italy was governed by an illiberal "regime".
"The censoring of a journalistic inquiry is a grave episode which I will take to the European Parliament, it's an absolute disgrace," she said.
Italo Bocchino of the conservative National Alliance party, who on Monday had threatened to sue the programme makers, said in view of the public outcry drug tests should be conducted on every member of parliament.
"That way the voters will know if the nation's representatives are people who break its drugs laws," he said. The AN, which is in Berlusconi's centre-right opposition, campaigns for drug use to be completely outlawed.
Liberal pressure groups said the Iene had unveiled the hypocrisy behind Italy's stringent drugs laws, a position backed by Environment Minister Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, leader of the Green party.
"Absurd laws have been passed which punish kids for smoking a joint, and then we find that among the highest political offices people are taking too much cocaine," he said.