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Italy23 July 2003

Two bills tailored for Berlusconi’s media empire progress through parliament

Reporters Without Borders today warned of the dangers to press freedom posed by two bills that came before parliament yesterday, the Gasparri bill on broadcasting reform, which was passed by the senate, and a bill supposed to address claims that Prime Minister Berlusconi’s ownership of a media empire constitutes a conflict of interests, which was passed by the chamber of deputies.

"These bills clearly serve the interests of Silvio Berlusconi, whose simultaneous possession of the highest political office and a news media empire is a unique anomaly in Europe," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard. "They pose a threat to press freedom and pluralism and a real danger for the autonomy of public television."

Berlusconi is the richest man in Italy. The news media are at the heart of his economic empire. He owns Mondadori, one of Italy’s biggest press and publishing groups, and Mediaset, which groups three commercial TV channels. At the same time, as prime minister, he has considerable influence over the state radio and TV broadcaster RAI.

The bill passed by the chamber of deputies says the management of a profit-making enterprise is incompatible with public office, but insists that there is no conflict of interests if the running of the company is entrusted to another person. Since Berlusconi’s companies are run by family members and associates and Berlusconi’s name does not appear in their organisation charts, there is no conflict of interests, according to the bill.

The opposition refused to participate in the final vote on this bill, which must be approved by the senate before it becomes law.

The Gasparri bill on broadcasting reform, which must now come before the chamber of deputies, allows companies to have interests in more than one news media category, reforms anti-trust restrictions and changes the composition of RAI’s board of governors. Beginning in January 2009, someone who owns more than one TV channel will also be able to acquire print media.

By allowing more advertising, the bill will increase the dominance of RAI and Mediaset, which together already absorb 93 per cent of the money spent on television advertising. Mediaset alone takes 63 per cent. The reform also envisages a progressive privatisation of RAI, but no shareholder will be able to own more 1 per cent of the shares, which will leave the economy ministry in control. The bill allows the Mediaset channel Retequattro to delay its move to satellite broadcasting until January 2006 instead of January 2004, as required by the constitutional court.

Instead of having five members named by the presidents of the senate and chamber of deputies, RAI’s board of governors will have nine members - seven of them named by the parliamentary monitoring commission and two by the economy ministry. Lucia Annunziata, the president of RAI’s board of governors, has said she will resign as soon as the bill becomes law.

In a report entitled "A media conflict of interest: anomaly in Italy," published in April, Reporters Without Borders analysed the consequences of Berlusconi’s conflict of interests on the diversity of news and information in Italy, which fell to 40th position in the worldwide press freedom ranking in 2002.

The organisation concluded that the blind trust formula was illusory and was in no way a solution to Berlusconi’s conflict of interests. As there is a danger that a similar situation could arise in other European countries, Reporters Without Borders recommended that the European Commission should look at the case of Italy in the drafting of its green paper on the concentration of news media in the hands of a few individuals or companies.

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