Italian opposition chief and former premier Silvio Berlusconi cried foul last week after the cabinet
approved a bill which would put the squeeze on his media empire. Berlusconi, who owns the three-channel commercial TV network Mediaset, said that ‘it’s difficult now to consider this country a democracy.’ The billionaire media mogul said he planned to battle the bill in parliament and called the new law ‘an act of thievery.’ He added, ‘It is no longer democracy when those in government attack the opposition and its leader through his private property and companies.’
The bill, presented by Telecommunications Minister Paolo Gentiloni, would force both Mediaset and state broadcaster RAI to move one of their three land channels to digital by 2009. Gentiloni said the two freed-up airwaves would be sold to competitors. ‘Italy will finally start to look like a normal country,’ said the minister, who acknowledged that Mediaset and RAI would see their lucrative advertising revenues reduced as a result of the reform.
Mediaset and RAI, who together account for 85 percent of Italy’s audience share, take more than 90 percent of money spent on TV advertising, with 66 percent going to Publitalia, the advertising arm of Berlusconi’s business empire. The ‘duopolistic’ set-up has long been criticised by market regulators and the Constitutional Court, which in 2002 ruled that the current TV system failed to guarantee pluralism. It upheld a 1994 ruling that no private broadcaster should own more than two nation-wide channels.
The government, then led by Berlusconi, side-stepped the ruling with a controversial emergency decree which saved one of Mediaset’s channels from closure. Prodi promised to reform a media law passed in 2004 when Berlusconi was in power. The so-called Gasparri law watered down legislation on dominant positions, allowing cross-ownership of newspapers, TV and radio. Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition insisted that the media would throw the market open to competition, protect minor players and regulate the switch to digital. But critics said it was designed to boost Mediaset’s market position and its profits. The European Commission also criticised the law last July and gave the new Italian government two months to address its concerns or face legal action and, ultimately, a hefty fine.