Italian TV stations defy law

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ROME (Reuter) - Dozens of Italian local television stations began broadcasting outside the law yesterday, the first defiant shots in what threatens to become a battle in parliament. The rebels are the 150 or so companies that refuse to accept a decree enforcing closure by last Sunday of all stations not specifically authorised to broadcast.

Earlier this month the Italian authorities sought to impose order on the chaotic commercial broadcasting sector by publishing a list of stations to be awarded franchises. The list, which comes 12 years after private television took hold in Italy, excluded about 300 stations, many suspected to be fronts for organised crime.

At the national level, it confirmed the dominant position of the media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, whose Fininvest conglomerate was awarded three of six private channels licensed to operate beside the three state channels.

Three more pay-TV stations in which the privately-owned Fininvest holds a 10 per cent stake will be licensed next year, so long as they fulfil undemanding conditions on advertising content and programme quality.

The local stations - even some of those that won franchises - call the list arbitrary and unfair, while left-wing parliamentary parties say it contravenes the 1990 Mammi law limiting concentration of media ownership, by giving too much power to Mr Berlusconi. Both have vowed to take a stand when the decree comes up for ratification in parliament later this year.

Of the 800 or so local television operations in Italy, 85 have already formed themselves into the National Committee of Stations for the Struggle, and dozens more have pledged to join at its next meeting, in Bologna on Thursday. Some have begun 24-hour broadcasting in blatant contravention of the latest decree.