October 21, 2009 5:41 pm

Berlusconi escapes censure on media

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Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister and media tycoon, narrowly escaped condemnation by the European parliament on Wednesday when MEPs rejected a motion deploring a lack of media freedom in Italy.

By 338 votes to 335 with 13 abstentions, Mr Berlusconi’s Italian supporters and other centre-right MEPs threw out a proposal for a European Commission law to protect media pluralism and crack down on concentration of media ownership.

The vote, though close, was a setback for Mr Berlusconi’s opponents in the Strasbourg-based parliament, who in April 2004 embarrassed his government by adopting a report that attacked his dominance over Italy’s media landscape.

The latest motion drew attention to Mr Berlusconi’s decision to take or threaten legal action against various Italian and other European news organisations that have reported extensively on alleged sex scandals in his private life.

The motion asserted that Rai, the Italian state broadcaster, over which Mr Berlusconi exerts influence by virtue of his role as premier, had paid scarcely any attention to these scandals, “whereas Mr Berlusconi went on air on two occasions alone and unchallenged”.

Mr Berlusconi’s political allies and business associates have for many years dismissed attacks on his media power as malicious and ill-informed.

Mediaset, the Berlusconi family-owned media group, and Rai attract about 90 per cent of Italy’s terrestrial television audiences, a state of affairs that centre-left Italian politicians denounce as a threat to media freedom. In addition, the Berlusconi business empire is Italy’s market leader in TV advertising.

Mr Berlusconi’s 2001-2006 government passed a law that purported to address this conflict of interests, but the unsuccessful parliamentary motion described the legislation as inadequate, saying: “The issue at the heart of the conflict of interests . . . is that the prime minister still controls the company Mediaset and has political control over the public service sector”.

The motion, which was backed by socialists, liberals, Greens and the far left, appeared to have a good chance of winning the parliament’s approval two weeks ago, when an MEPs’ debate revealed considerable anger and unease over Mr Berlusconi’s media power.

But centre-right parties are the much the largest force in the assembly, having won last June’s European elections, and their numerical strength eventually prevailed.

The motion was defeated one day after Reporters Without Borders, a global media watchdog, published its annual report and ranked Italy 49th out of 173 countries in terms of media freedom.

The report put part of the blame on Mr Berlusconi’s return to power in 2008, but also issued a warning about Mafia influence. “The grip of Mafia gangs on the media sector is strengthening and forcing a large number of journalists to tread warily,” the report said.

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