Satirists come out of the shadows to hail fall of Silvio

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The Independent Online

"Urgent information for comedians, cartoonists and humorists," announced La Stampa newspaper. "He's gone." In Italy, "He" means only one person, and now that Silvio Berlusconi has resigned as Prime Minister, life, it can be assumed, will begin to improve for the nation's beleaguered comics.

Mr Berlusconi had direct or indirect control over 90 per cent of Italian television output during his five years in the top job, and betrayed a low tolerance for ridicule. He did not hesitate to have those who offended him banished from the screens.

The crime of Enzo Biagi, Italy's best-loved journalist, was to interview the acerbic, left-wing Tuscan comedian and Oscar winner Roberto Benigni shortly before the 2001 general election. After Mr Berlusconi won he announced - while on a visit to Bulgaria - that such use of the state airwaves would not be tolerated. Biagi got the boot.

And when the acid-tongued comedian Sabina Guzzanti launched a satirical show on the left-leaning Rai 3 channel, Mr Berlusconi's Mediaset company complained of "very grave lies and insinuations" in her cruel depiction of the Prime Minister. Alarmed by the threat of a cripplingly expensive law suit, Rai cancelled the series.

The staging in Milan of a satirical play about Berlusconi by Dario Fo, the stand-up comedian whose play Accidental Death of an Anarchist won him the Nobel Prize for Literature, was menaced with cancellation until the Prime Minister's wife, Veronica Lario, spoke up against what she called "hateful, horrible" censorship. Mr Berlusconi has gone. Spring is in the air. But where are all the comedians? Gone to blogsites every one. Gone to politics, to social action, to theatres and arenas.

Sabina Guzzanti has not worked on TV since her show was axed in 2003. Instead, she has taken her satire on the road, playing live at theatres around the country, and a film she made on satire in Italy packed cinemas last year.

But the treatment she received has made her a militant on the subject of Italian television. At the traditional May Day concert in Rome she was collecting signatures in the million-strong crowd for a petition demanding the state broadcaster be made "independent of party politics to ensure true pluralism for Italy". Freedom of expression remains a long way off, she says. "I was allowed to appeal to the crowd to sign the petition from the stage after long negotiations, but my appeal was not broadcast. Singers who wanted to urge people to sign were threatened with fines. We have already got accustomed to the idea that there are limits on what we are free to say."

Dario Fo, who recently ran for mayor of Milan, said: "The ancient Romans used to put people in prison who were guilty of irony, forcing them to write eulogies on those they had offended. Things have improved. These days those who commit irony are merely removed from their place of work, in television, radio, newspapers. I hope things are about to change, and it will never occur to the powerful men of the centre-left to point the finger, at those who make people laugh."

Fo was chased from state television in the 1960s for his scathing humour, and never allowed back. "Politicians are not used to it," he said.

"Even on the left there are people who get livid at satire. We must throw ourselves with a passion into the task of reducing the impact of politics on culture, so we can enter the ranks of civilised countries."

Berlusconi minister begins jail sentence

Cesare Previti, minister of defence in Silvio Berlusconi's first government, is expected to begin a six-year jail sentence, after the highest court in the land rejected his appeal against a conviction for bribing judges.

More than a dozen criminal cases against Mr Berlusconi and his colleagues have gone through the courts in the past 10 years, but this is the first time that a member of his circle will actually go to jail.

Previti was found guilty with others of bribing judges to obtain favourable verdicts in two cases involving corporate takeovers.

Mr Berlusconi was charged in one of the original cases, but saved by the statute of limitations.