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Berlusconi’s Chilling Effect on Italian Media

Democracy is about more than casting ballots. When Italians went to the polls this week, what information and ideas shaped their votes?

For the past thirty years, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s family has controlled Italy’s top three national TV channels, known as the Mediaset empire. As head of government, Berlusconi has also maintained a tight grip on the “public service” national broadcaster, Radiotelevisione Italiana (Rai). Together, Mediaset and Rai control roughly 90 percent of national audience and advertising revenue shares.

To get a rough idea of the decline since Berlusconi entered politics in the early 1990s, imagine the media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corporation already owns one of the UK’s top networks, Sky Television, also buying controlling shares in ITN and Channel 4, finding a way to become Britain’s Prime Minister, and then systematically dismantling the independence of the BBC. That’s basically what has happened in Italy.

This has made broadcast media coverage increasingly partisan. Berlusconi and his government have repeatedly attempted to muzzle critical Italian media and avoid scrutiny. Now, the only significant criticism of the government comes from a handful of print outlets and a few isolated voices within Rai.

Let’s just look at this past year:

  • In June 2009, Berlusconi called publicly on businesses not to advertise in newspapers critical of his handling of the economy, singling out his old nemesis, the left-leaning La Repubblica. In the meantime, his government channeled roughly 90 percent of its own annual advertising to the Mediaset networks.
  • In August 2009, he sued La Repubblica for libel over its publication of ten questions to Berlusconi about his allegedly improper relationship with a minor; he also threatened to sue French and Spanish media over similar stories.
  • The government proposed and pushed through the lower house a bill that would criminalize publishing transcripts of wiretapped conversations leaked by law enforcement agencies. Italian journalists criticized the government’s proposal as overbroad and self-interested, and the proposal was sidelined temporarily. However, it was reactivated in the upper house earlier this month, when allegations emerged that prosecutors had stumbled upon conversations between Berlusconi, a member of the broadcast regulator overseeing Rai (Agcom), and a top Rai director. Berlusconi allegedly complained about critical voices within Rai and put pressure on the directors to silence dissent. Past disclosures leaked to the media have implicated Berlusconi and his allies in various corruption affairs.
  • In late 2009, the government introduced another bill that would require all websites carrying any video content, such as YouTube or any typical news site, to be licensed by the government and treated as regular broadcasters. No other Western democracy has attempted to regulate websites in this way. The proposal was only dropped after a barrage of international and domestic criticism.
  • In July 2009, the Italian Parliament approved a government proposal to re-introduce the criminal offense of insulting public officials, which had been repealed in 1999 after years of deliberation.
  • Another initiative is promoting a constitutional amendment that would prohibit, in drastic terms, “printed publications, shows and other displays ... that violate human dignity or the right to privacy.” The intent seems to be to provide a constitutional basis for prior restraint of media stories.
  • In a recent submission to the European Court of Human Rights, the Open Society Justice Initiative argued that consolidated ownership and control of broadcasting in Italy violates the right to pluralistic information guaranteed to all Italians by the continent’s bill of rights.
  • To top it off, ahead of this week’s municipal elections, a parliamentary committee controlled by the government majority imposed content restrictions that made it impossible for Rai’s political talk shows and investigative programs to maintain their regular formats during the campaign. This was followed by a decision of the Rai board that outright suspended an array of talk shows, including those most critical of the government.

The blatant and unprecedented conflict of interest between Berlusconi’s media holdings and his government position has remained unresolved since the early 1990s. Italy’s highest tribunal, the Constitutional Court, has ruled multiple times that such media concentration is illegal. Yet its decisions have not been enforced. For example, a decree from an earlier Berlusconi cabinet allowed Mediaset to hold on to all three of its channels, for nearly a decade, in open defiance of a Constitutional Court order.

At the continental level, the European Court of Justice has found Italy in violation of EU broadcast competition laws. This year, the Council of Europe requested, for the second time since 2004, an expert opinion on Italy’s compliance with European media freedom and pluralism principles. In January, the European Parliament came just three votes short of passing a measure criticizing the consolidated control of Italian media.

It is time for the democratic world to denounce the limitations on media freedom in Italy even more forcefully. This situation is a serious embarrassment to the idea of democratic pluralism, and a terrible model for emerging democracies around the globe.

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