Legality of Berlusconi’s Television Monopoly Challenged

NEW YORK/STRASBOURG—Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's control over television broadcasting in Italy goes against European democratic standards, the Open Society Justice Initiative argued in a brief filed today with the European Court of Human Rights. The Italian broadcaster bringing suit, Centro Europa 7 s.r.l., has been denied access to the airwaves for almost a decade.

"This case highlights the failure of successive Italian governments to deal with the twin problems of concentrated control and conflict of interest in broadcasting," said James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative. "The Italian situation is unacceptable for a democracy, and we are calling on the European Court to uphold the principles of media pluralism."

In 1999, Italian authorities granted Centro Europa 7 a license to operate a national television station but failed to offer it an actual operating frequency until December 2008. The frequency should have been relinquished under national anti-trust law by the Mediaset Group, Italy's dominant private broadcasting company. Mediaset operates the country's top three private television channels and is controlled by the Berlusconi family.

"Italy has the most concentrated television ownership in Europe," said Goldston. "This lack of diversity can stifle debate and limit the public's access to information and critical perspectives."

As head of government, Berlusconi also has indirect authority over Italy's state-owned public service broadcaster, Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI). Together, Mediaset and RAI jointly control roughly 90 percent of audience and advertising revenue shares nationally. Centro Europa 7 claims the frequency it was finally granted in 2008 was squeezed out of RAI's existing frequencies and is unsuitable for operating a national television network across Italy.

In 2004, both the Council of Europe and the European Parliament condemned the open conflict of interest between Mr. Berlusconi's media interests and his political responsibilities when in government, yet the situation persists. The current government has been repeatedly accused of partisan interference with RAI's editorial choices.

The Justice Initiative intervened in this case as an independent third party acting in the public interest.