The people versus Berlusconi
Ordinary Italians are marching against the prime minister's stranglehold on their country's media. Giulio D'Eramo reports
02 Oct 09

silvio_berlusconiItalians are marching against the prime minister’s stranglehold on the media. Giulio D’Eramo reports

Italians will stage a huge demonstration for free speech in Rome on 3 October, in protest at Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s new efforts to stifle media criticism. Protesters will also demonstrate in other cities such as London, where the Italian community and friends will gather in front of BBC World Service headquarters.

The idea of organising a demonstration to support freedom of expression came after Berlusconi’s lawyers launched defamation suits against two leading newspapers, La Repubblica and L’Unità, at the end of August. The move marked an unprecedented change in Berlusconi’s usual (and usually successful) strategy. Previously he portrayed himself as a victim of communist and judicial conspiracies, instead of taking legal action against those accusing him of wrongdoing.

According to Berlusconi’s lawyers, La Repubblica is guilty of posing offensive questions to the prime minister. Notably, these include the “10 questions” that the newspaper has published daily since May concerning Berlusconi’s “friendship” with young women and the state of his health. L’Unità, the main opposition party’s daily, is charged with reporting comments by the foreign press which are harmful to the prime minister — even though these comments were reported by most of the Italian press.

Following this legal action, Berlusconi received an open letter from three eminent Italian jurists, now supported by 445,000 people and counting. The letter tells Berlusconi that the only way to prove the questions are “offensive” is not to silence the questioner, but to answer them. The international media has also grown concerned about the current state of affairs, with The Economist suggesting that the PM’s moves are similar to those undertaken by an earlier Italian politician, Benito Mussolini.

The defamation procedures are among a range of moves Berlusconi has taken to secure his hold on the national media. At the beginning of La Repubblica’s 10 questions campaign, Berlusconi urged delegates at an entrepreneurs’ conference to cut advertising spending in La Repubblica, in a move that can only be seen as intimidation.

At the same time, there have been moves to replace directors at the state broadcaster RAI and a refusal by the six main free-to-air channels to broadcast the trailer of Erik Gandini’s filmVideocracy, on the basis of its being “critical of the government”. (The film has just been voted the best documentary at Toronto’s film festival).

The government continues to try to shut down the few investigative or politically critical shows on the RAI channels, like Annozero and Report. On 24 September, discussion programme Annozero went live despite government pressures to stop it, and for the first time the 80 per cent of Italians who rely primarily on television for news had the chance to hear what escort Patrizia D’Addario has to say. On 1 October the show, with a second and longer interview with D’Addario, went live on air again and attracted seven million viewers, a number that will make it hard for the authorities to shut the programme down.

The revelations have been brought up almost exclusively by the press, as the six main national TV channels, whose combined audience share is up to 85 per cent of the total, are directly or indirectly controlled by Berlusconi (three being part of his media empire, and the other three being the RAI state channels).

In Italy, most media criticism of prominent political figures disappears from newspaper headlines within a few days. But this one keeps rolling, thanks to the spicy new details that keep coming up. Just like in the past 15 years, however, the opposition seems unable to stick together and present itself as a serious alternative to Berlusconi’s ruling coalition.

The current media criticism of Berlusconi, much like documentaries such as Videocracy, and Saturday’s protests, has attracted a multitude of readers and fans. But it will have no real impact on society if it is not supported by a serious and clear political alternative. As one Corriere della Sera commentator wrote, people can agree with the campaign and with the documentary, but they will only be ready to make a move if they walk out of a cinema and find a leader like Barack Obama waiting for them.

See on Monday 5 Oct for Cecilia Anesi’s report from the Rome free expression protest