Italy: Berlusconi under investigation
Silvio Berlusconi's schemes to gag dissenting voices seem to have been revealed in a series of intercepted phone calls. But it may be too late to redress the balance, says Giulio D'Eramo
16 Mar 10

Silvio Berlusconi’s schemes to gag dissenting voices seem to have been revealed in a series of intercepted phone calls. But it may be too late to redress the balance, says Giulio D’Eramo

Silvio Berlusconi is under investigation, again. This time he’s not accused of corruption or financial scams, but of abusing his power in order to press the state broadcaster RAI to shut down Annozero, one of its investigative programmes, presented by a notoriously leftist journalist, Michele Santoro.

On the 12 March, the newspaper Il Fatto quoted recorded phone calls between Berlusconi, Augusto Minzolini — chief editor of the RAI1 tv News — and Giancarlo Innocenzi, member of the Communications Regulatory Authority (AGCOM).

While talking with the prime minister, Innocenzi sounds desperate to please and promises to help him shut down Annozero. But after he finished talking to the prime minister, Innocezi called the Mauro Masi, CEO of RAI, to complain about the prime minister’s pressure on him, adding that: “not even in Zimbabwe” would that be possible.

Minzolini reacted to the allegations saying “I am a honest person, I say what I think”. This would be great, were it not for the fact that what he thinks is always surprisingly similar to what Berlusconi says.

As recently as 12 March, Minzolini claimed that Berlusconi was acquitted from the trial involving British lawyer (and husband of minister Tessa Jowell) David Mills, a blatantly false statement which sparked an outcry from the civil society and led to petition of 150,000 signatures to remove him from his post. Berlusconi was not acquitted: the trial came to a stop thanks to an ad hoc law recently passed by the government.

The recently revealed wire-taps are three months old, so one might wonder: what has since happened to the Annozero talk Show? Well, it was shut down, together with all the discussion shows on RAI.

In February the parliamentary commission (CdV) set up to control Rai’s respect of broadcasting laws gave a weird interpretation of the italian law — Par Condicio — that regulates the presence of political figures on TV stations. The law states that political representatives of each party should appear on TV proportionally to the share of votes the party gathered at the previous election. The Par Condicio law was passed by the 1996-2000 left-wing government which, unable to agree on a law on Berlusconi’s conflict of interests, established general criteria to be imposed on every Italian TV and radio station.

So the CdV, which is not supposed to interpret laws but only to make sure they are applied, decided that Rai should comply with Par Condicio in a very special way: in view of upcoming regional elections they should suspend investigative programmes that touched on topics related to politics, as such topics could potentially be favouring some political parties over the others. This implies the full closure of around 11 programmes on the RAI TV channels.

Besides the obvious damage to people’s right to information, it is very important to note that this provision only applies to the RAI channels, i.e. not to Berlusconi’s ones. This means that RAI (44 per cent of audience share) will lose advertising money together with credibility, while its main competitor (Berlusconi’s Mediaset, 41 per cent of audience share) will once again profit from RAI’s economic Hara-kiri. This is not speculation, but fact: last Thursday Rai broadcast 101 Dalmatians instead of Annozero, and the audience share fell from around 20 per cent to a mere 9 per cent.

These are the economic consequences, but what about the political ones? Well, if people don’t find information on RAI, they will turn to Mediaset (unless they have satellite TV, but that’s a different story). And won’t a company fully support its owner, especially when he needs all the help he can find to win elections in a time in which his popularity is slowly but steadily declining?

The opposition had voted for the Par Condicio law thinking that it would restrain Berlusconi’s channels from becoming a straightforward tool of propaganda. Instead this is what was achieved: serious limits to freedom of information were set, Berlusconi won the following elections anyway, and now the law is turning against the very politicians that had voted for it.

As the Communications Regulatory Authority (AGCOM) raised doubts about the fairness of a measure to be adopted only by certain channels, and not all, today Berlusconi plainly said:“We’re not going to change our minds. With elections just two weeks away only a crazy person could expect me to allow Annozero to go back on air.”

Obviously, just like Minzolini, he’s not afraid to say what he thinks. But does that make him a honest person?