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Bulldozing the Press?

Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi is reported to have demanded that two journalists of a state-run broadcaster be fired for being too critical of him. His comments have sparked off a row about media control in Italy.


A master at crushing criticism

Italian Prime Minister and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi is not exactly known for his tolerance towards the freedom of the press.

With three of the country’s four major private television stations firmly in his grip through his Mediaset group and considerable sway over the state-run television station RAI, Berlusconi dominates the airwaves in Italy.

But the Prime Minister's latest move in Italy’s media landscape is reportedly said to have gone too far.

Reports of Berlusconi demanding that two journalists of the state-run RAI TV station be fired for reporting too critically about him and for "criminal use" of a state broadcaster have landed the Prime Minister in a fresh row.

"They have made criminal use of public television", he told a news conference on a visit to Bulgaria.

His comments have incensed the opposition centre-left who had alleged a recent reshuffle of RAI executives to give Berlusconi more control.

High-profile journalists on the line

The two journalists in question are well known faces in the Italian media: Michele Santoro hosts a popular current affairs show, while the 82-year-old Enzo Biagi - a highly respected journalist –presents the programme, "The Fact" on the biggest RAI Uno channel.

In addition Berlusconi was reported as demanding that a satirical comedian, Daniele Luttazzi be laid off too.

Luttazzi had heavily criticised the present Prime Minister in his programme last year before the parliamentary election. He had interviewed the author of "The Scent of Money", a book which contains allegations about Berlusconi’s business dealings.

Glib talk?

However, the Prime Minister on Friday denied reports that he had said that the journalists should be fired.

He told reporters in Rome that his government would guarantee RAI provides balanced coverage. In the past Berlusconi has consistently accused RAI of politically damaging him.

RAI chairman Antonio Baldassare later played down Berlusconi’s remarks and said the two journalists would stay on.

In an interview with the Catholic Avvenire newspaper, he said, "Berlusconi’s words are the wishes of a politician and remain in the political arena. I have always fought for an independent RAI and will continue to do so."

Italian media unforgiving

But this time Italy sounds unforgiving of their Prime Minister for his latest controversy.

Italian media reported President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi calling for "editorial autonomy" as a "fundamental element of a modern democracy" in apparent response to Berlusconi’s comments.

Even the daily Il Foglio, which is part-owned by Berlusconi’s wife launched a scathing attack on the Prime Minister. "Nothing can justify a witch hunt of journalists ordered with an authoritarian voice by the owner of Mediaset and Prime Minister Berlusconi.

The paper said his comments "seriously threaten to compromise his political career."

The daily La Repubblica ran a headline on Friday, "Berlusconi leads the cleansing programme at RAI".

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