Italy: Berlusconi squeezes media
09 Feb 2010

Silvio Berlusconi’s has stepped up his campaigns against his television rivals, press freedom and the internet. Giulio D’Eramo reports

We’re barely into the new decade and already reading about freedom issues in Italy is like scanning a long war bulletin. The situation was poor 20 years ago, but it has worsened since Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s entrance in politics. In the last six months it has taken the steepest downhill path one could imagine. In the ’80s and ’90s Berlusconi’s television channels represented editorial innovation and business success. But in the last 10 years Italian’s appetite for the Berlusconi style of programming has waned.

No doubt prompted by the economic success of Murdoch’s Sky Italia satellite platform, Berlusconi has begun using his government to pass laws that damage Sky TV to the sole advantage of the bottom line of his TV media empire. He is passing laws to protect his privacy, while at the same time classifying as top secret information about illegal wiretaps on intellectual and political leaders of the opposition. Nevertheless, during his recent visit to Israel, Berlusconi accused the Italian press of orchestrating the harshest ever media campaign against a primre minister.

Let’s stop for a second and see the measures the government adopted, or is tying to adopt, this month. The first, and most important, is a measure restricting internet freedom. Part of the Romani decree, it would require anybody frequently posting live video on the internet to get a government licence. This has drawn criticism from Google, owners of YouTube and the Corrado Calabro Communications Regulatory Authority (AGCOM), which said “Only authoritarian regimes have restricted internet freedom”. This measure is strengthened by the Bondi decree, which issues a new tax on any product that could potentially help citizens to break the copyright law: anything from computers to DVD players and internet connection devices.

The Romani decree contains other measures that highlight Berlusconi’s struggle to maintain his control of the media, and to secure his revenues. One element — that government officials have already labelled as non-negotiable — will cut the percentage of ads allowed on satellite and cable platforms (like Murdoch’s Sky TV) from 18 per cent of airtime to 12 per cent, but thanks to a legal trick, augmenting it for Berlusconi’s broadcast channels who can increase their percentage of ads from 18 per cent of airtime to 20 per cent. Another measure cuts the funds for cultural productions like theatres — already been cut by 50 per cent in the previous Berlusconi government. The economic crisis means many cinemas and theatres are already on the edge of bankruptcy. Cultural productions are important as they showcase different viewpoints, unlike Italian television which only portrays a happy and smiling country.

Articolo 21, the leading association in defence of freedom of speech, is a national meeting in Rome to discuss possible actions to prevent the passing of this bill.

In a law which took effect last week, movies and shows forbidden to under 14s will be banned on any TV platform up to 10.30 pm, even if it’s pay per view. This is a clear blow to Murdoch’s Sky, as they have just launched a series of pay-per-view 24/7 porn channels. Looking through this legislation I realised something funny: while movies like Grease are to banned, live shows with almost naked girls will still be legally broadcasted. In fact this law was always in place, it has just been extended to the new satellite platform, but as an Italian I had never noticed its impact, as I am pretty used to seeing semi-erotic dances on most of Italian channels, at any time of the day. Indeed, Berlusconi made his fortune on “immoral” TV. As an anonymous commenter wrote on the site of Republica, if this law was to be respected, we would need to shut down all of Berlusconi’s television stations from 7am to 10.30 pm.

As if all this was not enough on the 5 January Berlusconi classified as top secret information about the wrongdoings of one of his allies. Marco Mancini was the number two at the SISMI military intelligence agency. He is currently under indictment for taking part in an illegal wiretapping organisation targeting intellectual and political leaders of the opposition. Berlusconi’s actions stalled the trial against those responsible and enabled Telecom, the telephone company involved in the wiretaps, to settle the charges against them for less than E5m on 28 January. This would not be surprising were it not for the fact that a strict law aimed at limiting the use of wiretaps to investigations into terrorism and organised crime is being promoted in an aggressive and long-lasting media campaign. This idea draws support not only from Berlusconi’s allies — prompted by the prime minister’s wiretap related sex scandal— but also from important parts of the opposition, worried of being scrutinised by the public opinion.

The attitude of Italy’s politicians to anything that might endanger their privileges has reduced the capability of the media to draw the public’s attention to problems that should concern every Italian. This leads to the dangerous situation we’ve living in for the past 10 years: the only body of democratic control remains the judiciary, but without the public support they have been left to a lonely fight against the all-mighty political class. This is why Berlusconi is working hard to reduce its powers, to the advantage of his colleagues, but also of organised crime.

Our political class won’t denounce wrong-doing. Not long ago the mayor of Milan, a Berlusconi ally called Letizia Moratti, proposed dedicating a street to the famously corrupt Bettino Craxi. Craxi was the charismatic leader of the Socialist party (PSI) up to the early ‘90s, he was also one of Berlusconi’s political mentors. Craxi’s involvement in a series of corruption scandals forced him to flee the country, in his absence he was convicted and sentenced imprisonment.
Berlusconi’s allie rallied behind Mayor Moratti, as did some opposition politicians. Piero Fassino even argued Craxi “was just a scapegoat, since the problem of the illegal funding of political parties was common to all parties, not only to the Socialist one”. We might wonder why would anyone ever want to rehabilitate such a man? Politicians should not hide behind the excuse that corruption is endemic to politics.

There might be one good thing to all this: is Italy going to be the ultimate opponent to Rupert Murdoch’s media empire?

3 responses to “Italy: Berlusconi squeezes media”

  1. […] Rupert Murdoch’s News International. The most troubling excess of this dominance was seen during Silvio Berlusconi’s rule as prime minister in Italy, when dissenting voices were marginalised bothy by state television and […]

  2. truth says:

    What a fascist ! The people of Italia will revolt in the only way they know how. The statue on the nose was hilarious and well deserved.

  3. Adam says:

    “Only authoritarian regimes have restricted internet freedom”.
    Australia will soon become just that. Add Australia to the list of Authoritarian regimes please.