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Italy29 January 2004

Silvio Berlusconi saves one of his TV channels by decree in flagrant example of conflict of interest

On 28 January, the senate approved a decree allowing the TV channel Retequattro to continue terrestrial broadcasting. Retequattro is part of the Mediaset group, which is owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and the decree will therefore allow Berlusconi to maintain ownership of all three of his TV channels, contrary to a ruling by the constitutional court. The lower house will consider the decree on 27 February.

Reporters Without Borders has accused Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, of taking a step that was "a flagrant and shocking example of conflict of interest in the media."

Berlusconi, who is both chief executive and owner of a media empire, signed a decree on 23 December reprieving one of his television channels, which was set to transfer to satellite by the end of the year.

The switch for Retequattro would have led to significant loss in its market value. The channel, part of Berlusconi’s Mediaset group, can now continue as a terrestrial channel until 30 April 2004, when the telecommunications authority is due to make a decision.

"This step is a flagrant and shocking example of Silvio Berlusconi’s conflict of interest in the media," said Robert Ménard, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders. "It is not a question of some kind of economic decision. We respond with dismay to this autocratic gesture and its consequences for pluralism of news and information in Italy," he added.

Berlusconi’s decree, which has been passed by the cabinet, follows Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi’s refusal to sign a new broadcast media law. The president considered that the law adopted by parliament on 2 December contained provisions that ran contrary to the Constitution.

The "Gasparri" law, the purpose of which was to prepare the ground for digital terrestrial television, was also set to lift a ban on cross-ownership of media and would allow one person to own more than two national broadcasting stations.

Berlusconi would thus be able to retain ownership of his three national channels (Italia 1, Canale 5 and Retequattro). The Consitutional Court had ordered on 20 November 2002 that Retequattro should switch to satellite on 1 January 2004, to ensure conformity with the law on competition.

"The president’s message, although it was exceptional, was clearly not understood," added Ménard. "Less than a week later the prime minister decides to sign a document himself that protects his private interests."

Reporters Without Borders recalled that the draft law on conflicts of interest has yet to be approved by the Senate. If the text of the law says that management of profit-making company is incompatible with a government post, there is no conflict of interest if the management is in the hands of a third party. In fact Berlusconi’s name does not appear on any management list of companies he owns, where the running of the company is in the hands of a friend or family member. In this case, the question of conflict of interest, does not arise.

In a report entitled "Conflict of interest in the media: The Italian Anomaly", published in April 2003, Reporters Without Borders analysed the consequences of Berlusconi’s conflicts of interest on the pluralism of news and information in Italy, relegated to 53rd on the world press freedom ranking in 2003.

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