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Italy14 February 2006

Media urged to give a fair share of airtime to election candidates

Reporters Without Borders hailed a ruling by the Italian broadcast regulatory authority that for the first time condemned Silvio Berlusconi’s abusive exploitation of the media.

The press freedom organisation welcomed a fine of tens of thousand of euros levied on Mediaset, which is controlled by the Italian prime minister’s family, for violating rules giving fair allocation of airtime.

This ruling is on Silvio Berlusconi’s conflict of interests by which he is head of a media empire as well as being head of government, it said. “We are delighted at this step but the situation remains a unique anomaly in Europe, which is dangerous for the independence of the media and unworthy of a democratic state.”

“We urge the Italian media to allow a fair share of airtime to all candidates to the legislative elections on 9 April.”

Berlusconi has been monopolising TV screens since the start of the year, giving him a serious advantage in the legislative race. His group, Mediaset, was ordered by the Italian communications watchdog on 9 February 2006 to pay a 150,000-euro fine for exceeding his airtime.

The body particularly criticised him for appearing alone, with no-one to challenge him, on a debate during the programme “Liberi Tutti”. Berlusconi was surrounded by leading Mediaset journalists and the former coach of AC Milan football club, which he owns, who never stopped singing his praises. The television debate was aired on 4 February by Rete4, of which he is the boss, and then re-broadcast in full on 6 February.

“The fine imposed on the head of the Italian government is more symbolic than real,” said Reporters Without Borders. “It is derisory for a group as powerful as Mediaset and does not resolve the problem of access to the media for the other candidates to the legislative elections on 9 April.”

Airtime accorded to politicians is regulated by the 22 February 2000 law on fairness of access to means of communication. The electoral campaign only began officially on 11 February after parliament was dissolved. But the law also applies to any pre-electoral period and should be respected by both public and privately-owned channels.

The regulatory authority, concerned about balance, told channels to apply the law in advance. Romano Prodi, who is Berlusconi’s main challenger, complained that he had only been given eight minutes airtime since mid-January compared to more than three hours for “il Cavaliere”.

The authority has also opened another investigation into Berlusconi’s participation, once again alone without any candidate opposing his Forza Italia party, on a programme put out by RAI’s Isoradio channel.

Mediaset has said it will appeal against the ruling.

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