How Italian media censorship works

ROME, Italy — Prior to regional Italian elections that many say will amount to a referendum on the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, three of the country’s most important television networks have been free of political analysis.

State broadcaster RAI, which owns the three networks that will abstain from political programming ahead of the vote Sunday and Monday, calls the policy its “fairness doctrine.” But many, noting that RAI’s silence for the most part leaves political commentary to the rival networks controlled by Berlusconi’s Mediaset, call it a kind of censorship.

“Censorship in Italy is not like in the movies, with a group of men in a room blacking out lines of type in documents,” Filiberto di Renzo, one of the RAI employees who protested against the new policy, said in an interview. “It’s much more complex.”

No discussion of the Italian media and censorship can get far without mentioning Berlusconi, the billionaire media tycoon and four-time prime minister. Mediaset is made up of three national television networks and a major film studio, while Berlusconi’s other holdings include a major daily newspaper, a leading news magazine, a large publishing house and the country’s largest media buyer. And as prime minister, he has indirect control over RAI — enough, critics say, to pull the strings necessary to put that broadcaster’s “fairness doctrine” into effect.

“It would be difficult to imagine a modern and industrialized country, a member of the G8 and a founding member of the European Union, where a single figure had so much control over the media,” said Domenico Affinito, vice-president of the Italian chapter of Reporters Without Borders. “You might expect this kind of concentration in Turkmenistan or Iran, but it shouldn’t take place in a country like Italy.”

Renzo Santelli, external relations director for the National Federation of Italian Media, agreed.
“Some Berlusconi allies try to draw a parallel with Ted Turner or Rupert Murdoch, but they never had his political ambitions,” Santelli said in an interview. “Some point to Michael Bloomberg, but he is a mayor, not a prime minister, and besides, he put his personal holdings into a blind trust, something Berlusconi has always resisted very aggressively.”

Berlusconi is a controversial figure outside of Italy, but at home his support levels have been remarkably stable.

“The Italian political spectrum is very polarized, and for every political figure a large part of the electorate is predisposed to oppose them,” said Maria Rossi, co-director of the polling firm Opinioni. “But Berlusconi’s support among those he can reasonably expect support from is almost unwavering.”

In its latest report, released last October, Reporters Without Borders ranked Italy 49th in the world in terms of press freedom, behind countries as unlikely as Surinam, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Mali. Since Berlusconi entered politics full time in 2001, the country has never ranked higher than 35th, and that was in 2007, during a 20-month span when Berlusconi was out of power.

“Of course, a lot of the problems Italy has in this area can be traced to Berlusconi,” Affinito said. “But the biggest problem comes from the changes in the culture he has fostered. Eventually, Berlusconi will die or retire. But he has changed the whole system dramatically.”

In Italy there are several ways to assert power over the media: the most visible option is through the use of lawsuits. According to Argia Bignami, a Rome attorney specializing in intellectual property issues, a news report can be considered libelous under Italian law unless it meets three criteria: It must be true, it must be newsworthy and it must meet standards for public decency. The third measure is subject to the most interpretation.

“Flawed cases are eventually thrown out, but the process is slow and very expensive,” Bignami said. “A public figure can bleed a media outlet through legal fees.”

The Economist magazine based in the United Kingdom is a good example. When Berlusconi returned to politics after a seven-year hiatus in 2001, the magazine famously ran a cover story showing a pensive close-up of Berlusconi and a large-print headline reading “Why Silvio Berlusconi is unfit to lead Italy.” Berlusconi sued, saying the claim was indecent.

Seven years later, a judge ruled against him and he was ordered to repay $1.2 million in court costs. The Economist has not backed away from its criticisms since then, but it is easy to imagine that most media would buckle under that kind of pressure.

RAI’s fairness doctrine is an example of another strategy in which powerful figures, even if they don't have any official role in the company, can impact a media outlet’s policies or have troublesome personalities fired or transferred, simply by offering or withholding favors.

Journalists Marco Travaglio and Michele Santoro, two of Berlusconi’s most vocal critics, know that tactic first hand. Both have been fired — and then re-hired, under pressure — from RAI for voicing views unpopular with the Berlusconi camp, and the program they host, AnnoZero, is one of those impacted by the new rules. But for his part, Travaglio said he saw his reinstatement as a positive.

“There are very worrying signs when it comes to press freedom in Italy, but there are encouraging signs as well,” he said. “Maybe the Berlusconi era will come to be seen as a war the Italian media goes through in order to emerge healthier on the other side.”