Italy14 February 2002
Open letter to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
Mr Prime Minister:
Italy is about to become the only country in the European Union and the only major Western democracy where all private and public radio and television stations are controlled directly or indirectly by its government. In a few days time, the board of the public television network, RAI, will be renewed. Parliament is meanwhile debating a bill that will supposedly resolve the conflict of interest between your private business activities and your function as head of the government. We solemnly urge you to recognise the seriousness of this unprecedented situation in a democratic country.
On 16 February, the RAI board appointed by the previous centre-left government will step down and probably be replaced by one dominated by people close to your coalition government. You already control (through the holding company Fininvest), Italy’s biggest private television group, Mediaset, which includes the country’s three biggest private national TV stations. You are also one of the controlling shareholders of Mondori, one of Italy’s main publishing and media concerns.
You promised in May last year you would resolve the conflict of interest between your stake in Mediaset and your position as head of the government. However, the bill your government has submitted to parliament, which is now discussing it, simply proposes setting up a body to see that government officials do not make decisions that favour their own private interests. It does not in any way threaten your authority and influence over the Mediaset group, which remains your property and whose three TV stations are administered by your trusted lieutenants.
The country’s three other TV stations, run by RAI, are therefore crucial to maintaining pluralism in radio and television news in Italy. You have said you want to "distance" yourself from the appointment of the new RAI board. However, there is little doubt it will mostly comprise people close to the parties in the government. The presidents of the two houses of parliament, which will name the board members, both belong to these parties. Umberto Bossi, the third-ranking figure in the government and head of the populist federalist Northern League, has already demanded one of the five seats on the RAI board for his party, to "ensure its views are heard" on television.
Several people close to you have been mentioned as those most likely to be appointed to the RAI management. Even if the custom of giving the opposition some posts of responsibility in the three public TV stations is followed, the forthcoming appointments will probably be politically motivated so as to bolster the presence of the government parties. This means the independence and pluralism of television and radio news will be directly and seriously threatened in Italy to an extent unseen since World War II and will create a situation that we stress again will be unprecedented and unacceptable in a Western democracy.
This is why we are asking you, as head of the government and with the special responsibility you have because you control Italy’s private TV stations, to drop the traditional practice of sharing out key posts at RAI among political parties. We ask you to find ways to strengthen the independence guarantees of the three public TV stations and to assign an organisation or impartial authority to come up with proposals for this. Finally, we call on you to publicly declare you will safeguard the pluralism of radio and television news in Italy until the next general elections in 2006.
We trust you will give serious consideration to what we have said.