By Bastiaan Vanacker, Research Assistant
Ever since the election that resulted in media mogul Silvio Berlusconi becoming Prime Minister of Italy, questions have been raised about his ever-increasing control over the media. Berlusconi is not only the Italian Premier and the owner of one of Italy's best soccer teams, but his Fininvest group is also the main shareholder in Mediaset, which operates Italy's three biggest private TV stations (Canale 5, Italia 1, Rete 4), totaling 43% of the market share. This fact alone has been one of the most hotly debated topics in Italian politics during the last decade. Since Berlusconi came to power, fears about his media monopoly have grown because as Prime Minister he is also able to influence the three stations of the state-owned public television (RAI) whose three channels take up 47.4% of the market share. Berlusconi had vowed to resolve this apparent conflict of interest in the first one hundred days of his premiership, but he did not do so. He also failed to install a panel of independent advisors to investigate the issue.
The conflict of interest issue arose in October 2001, when his coalition blocked a commercial deal, agreed to by the previous government, that would have been very lucrative for the state-owned RAI. Opposition leaders stated that the action benefitted Berlusconi's Mediaset group, RAI's competitor in Italy's television market. On April 17, 2002, Berlusconi's government appointed incoming news executives for the RAI channels. The newly-appointed heads of news for the first and second RAI channels both have ties to Berlusconi's right wing government. As a result, Berlusconi's influence reaches over five of the six biggest Italian channels, or about 85-90% of the television market. Only the third RAI channel is still in the hands of a news executive appointed by a party from the left. Although the Italian Prime Minister typically appoints the head of news and programming of the RAI channels, in light of Berlusconi's already dominant media position, serious conflict of interest issues arise. Observers hope that this situation might prompt Italy to make some long overdue changes in the way it organizes its public television.
Two days after making the appointments, Berlusconi publicly criticized two highly respected RAI journalists as well as a comedian who had been critical of him. He stated that the three had made a criminal use of public television and that the RAI management should make sure that this would not happen again, although this time, the three should not be fired as long as they changed their attitude. Italy's head of state, President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, sharply rebuked Berlusconi for his statement. Even newspapers that had been very supportive of Berlusconi's coalition were highly critical. On January 29, 2001, even before the latest controversy had taken place, the International Federation of Journalists sent a letter to European Union president Romano Prodi asking that something be done about Berlusconi's unbridled media power, stating that "The conflict of interest in Italy would not be tolerated by the European Union in any country being considered for EU membership. It should not be tolerated in a member state."