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How Italian media censorship works

Berlusconi controls many outlets, but Italian law also contributes to restrictions on press freedom.

Italian Green party leader Angelo Bonelli and members of his party have their mouth gagged as they protest in front of the headquarters of the broadcasting commission Agcom to call for press freedom on March 18, 2010 in Rome, a few days after Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was put under investigation for allegedly trying to gag a political talk show that is often critical of him. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)

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.”