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Europe

Il Duce of the Italian Airwaves

His grip over Italy's private media firmly in hand, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi looks to extend his influence into the last broadcaster still critical of him: the state-run RAI network.

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His fingers in all the pies

He wears many hats.

Italy’s richest man, Italy’s media magnate, Italy’s proud nationalist, Italy’s Prime Minister.

It is that last title, and the combination of the labels that come before it, that has given his critics both at home and in the European Union so much concern. Since assuming Italy’s top job in June, Silvio Berlusconi has firmly led his country down a conservative path, doing much along the way to protect both his business interests and himself from judicial inquiry.

In the coming weeks, Berlusconi looks to take another step. The self-made media magnate, who already controls three of the country’s four major private television stations through his Mediaset group, is looking to extend his influence into the only broadcaster that still remains critical of him: the state-run television station RAI.

The RAI’s board and chairman is up for re-appointment before the end of the month. The decision on who to appoint chairman falls on the presidents of the two houses of Italy’s parliament. Since both are Berlusconi men, it is a logical conclusion they will keep in mind the wishes of their boss.

The result could mark the first time a European leader has virtual control over his country’s media and has sent shivers through civil rights advocates everywhere.

Making promises, calming fears

The shocking state of affairs in Italy whereby the man who controls the private television sector is now trying to control the future of public broadcasting in the country makes a mockery of the European Union's commitment to public service," said John Barsby, the European Co-Chairman of the worldwide campaign Public Broadcasting For All. "It amounts to media dictatorship which should not be tolerated in any democratic state."

Berlusconi’s government has tried to head off any conflict-of-interest concerns by introducing a parliamentary bill that seeks to safeguard media diversity. The legislation gives the head of Italy’s competition authority the power to notify parliament if any conflict of interest between Berlusconi’s public and private roles arises.

A House committee passed the bill this week, following a walk-out by opposition politicians. Both houses will vote on the legislation early next week.

Critics say the legislation lacks teeth and that the dominance of the prime minister’s coalition government in Italy’s parliament makes it virtually useless.

The puppeteer

Berlusconi brushes aside such concerns. He has described his media empire as "a voice for pluralism, democracy and freedom without precedent in Italy’s history."

In his race for the prime minister’s job, Berlusconi used that voice heavily to his advantage. When RAI gave his opponent, former Rome Mayor Francesco Rutelli, one hour more airtime, he countered using his dominance over Italy’s private channels. On Mediaset channels, Berlusconi got almost five hours of airtime between January and the end of April. His opponent, just 42 minutes.

He promised to answer conflict-of-interest accusations by selling off some of his empire. That appears out of the question now.

Critics fear the opposite will happen: In protecting the monopoly his private stations have on the Italian market, Berlusconi will do everything he can to weaken the power of RAI and extend Mediaset’s influence. Media watchers also bemoan the very real possibility that Berlusconi will yank the quality of RAI programming down to the sex, smut and violence of his private channels.

Silence in the EU

Few appear to openly challenge Berlusconi in his moves, least of all the European Union.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said after a recent visit to Italy that "each country has its regulations as regards to the media."

And his dry remarks have been the only official comment so far.

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