Berlusconi aiming to tighten curbs on media

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The Independent Online
The Italian opposition forced a stormy emergency debate yesterday over the future of Italy's state broadcasting corporation, RAI, as anxiety grows over government moves to tighten control of the media.

Mario Segni, the leader of the centrist Pact For Italy, called for drastic action to save the broadcasting body 'before RAI is steamrollered.' The opposition make the battle over the future of the corporation a priority, he said. 'We must stop RAI from becoming a chorus of praise for (Prime Minister Silvio) Berlusconi . . . or from being reduced to an irrelevance so that news becomes a monoploy of his legions,' he added.

The furious battle over the future of public broadcasting occurs as RAI teeters on the verge of bankruptcy. A debate on new funding for the corporation last week aroused such passions that neo-Fascist and opposition deputies ended up brawling in the chamber. At the heart of the issue is doubt over whether the Prime Minister, who owns half the country's television channels and who has often attacked RAI for failing to reflect the government line, intends to allow Italy a genuinely pluralistic broadcasting system.

Mr Berlusconi argues that the television corporation needs to be leaner and more competitive. So far, discussion of reform has gone little beyond a suggested three-year restructuring plan aimed at ironing out the corporation's huge debts. Whatever funds are cut from RAI, inevitably its only real competition will be Mr Berlusconi's own three channels.

Suspicion is increased by the haste with which Mr Berlusconi launched into the RAI reforms - hardly a national priority - after his election last spring. He stunned journalists in June, when he declared: 'I think there is not a single democratic country in which a public broadcasting service goes against the majority that returned the government.' In the next breath, he said it was absurd that RAI 'should be deeply in debt and obliged to seek state help' - which some took to mean that if RAI did not change it would not get state money.

The corporation's debts, run up during years of mismanagement as the tool of the corrupt old parties, provided Mr Berlusconi with the formal excuse to sack the RAI board, whose mandate was due to run until 1995.

The Prime Minister's attempts to exercise direct control over new appointments in July were blocked only at the last minute by the Italian President. As it is, the new board reflects a swing to the right, echoing the buzzword, Epurazione, or purge, most favoured by Mr Berlusconi's neo-Fascist coalition partners when referring to the management of RAI.