According to press freedom advocates, journalists in Italy are now only "partly free." In recent weeks, a petition protesting government control of the media has garnered 450,000 signatures, and protesters plan to march in Rome this weekend. The target: Italy’s media mogul, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Reporter Megan Williams has the story.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And, I'm Bob Garfield. This year Italy slipped farther in the global rankings of press freedom assigned by the Washington-based Freedom House advocacy group. Now it stands in 73rd place, reclassified as only “partly free.” In recent weeks, a petition protesting government control of the media has garnered 450,000 signatures, and Rome is the scene of a protest march this weekend, the target of which is Italy’s media mogul Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. But, as Megan Williams reports from Rome, even critics say it’s too easy to blame it all on him.
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MEGAN WILLIAMS: The launch of this fall’s TV season in Italy got off to a dramatic start. After months of newspaper reports that he'd slept with prostitutes and partied with young women, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi took center stage on his favorite state-run TV show, Porta a Porta, and let the press have it.
[SILVIO BERLUSCONI SPEAKS IN ITALIAN] He lambasted journalists, calling them scoundrels. He said the accusations of misconduct against him were unfounded and that the idea that freedom of the press is in danger in Italy was international left-wing libel against the nation. What he didn't explain was why several other primetime political shows that might have competed for viewership with that TV appearance were postponed or cancelled. After all, he controls all of public television and most of private TV, where 80 percent of Italians get their news. This is an old concern, but what’s new is the brazenness of Berlusconi’s attacks on the media. While Berlusconi passed a law giving himself immunity from prosecution, he’s launched a volley of court cases. One case aimed at La Repubblica newspaper is not for what’s been written but for ten pointed questions the paper keeps asking the leader. Berlusconi’s family-owned paper has also gone on the attack, outing as gay the editor of a Catholic newspaper critical of the leader’s behavior. And Berlusconi has urged advertisers not to buy space in papers critical of him.
FURIO COLOMBO: No other European country, and certainly not the United States public opinion, would tolerate the repetition of violations that Berlusconi as the prime minister and Berlusconi as the owner of his own television and press exercise practically every day, openly.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Furio Colombo is a longtime Italian journalist who’s taught at Columbia University. Recently he and others founded a new Italian newspaper called Il Fatto Quotidiano, The Daily Fact, to provide unbiased criticism of Italian politics. Colombo says what’s lacking in Italy is not just freedom of the press but something even more necessary for democracy.
FURIO COLOMBO: Public opinion – public opinion means a natural independent attitude by the people to stand in front of you and demand why that news was not published, why that commentary was so particularly bended one way or another.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Berlusconi has filled the silence with self-aggrandizing statements that are never backed up, says Colombo.
FURIO COLOMBO: He keeps going around saying, I am the best prime minister of Italy, and then he adds to this modest statement, I am the best in the world. And, of course, these are strange statements that can be done only in a strange country that has no more freedom of press.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: But despite critics, almost half of Italians are attracted by Berlusconi’s bravado. Italy, after all, is the birthplace of melodrama, and many see his style as confident, that of a winner.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER/SONG IN ITALIAN] Take this song, for example, part of a campaign to get Berlusconi awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s one of several composed by adoring supporters and played at political rallies and on TV shows.
[SONG CONTINUES IN ITALIAN] “There’s a president who’s always present,” the words go. “We're here for you, heart and spirit, one voice, Silvio, Silvio the great.”
[SINGING CONTINUES] This kind of cult of personality approach by both supporters and Berlusconi himself triggers constant comparisons to Mussolini. But Italian political history professor Giovanni Orsina says that it’s not just dictators who are oversensitive to the press. Democratic leaders whose popularity comes from their charisma show the same tendency. They interpret any criticism as a personal attack. But Orsina says freedom of the press isn't his biggest concern about Italy.
GIOVANNI ORSINA: This doesn't mean that there are no problems. Of course, there is an imbalance, absolutely. But, I mean, if you want to have the views of the opposition parties on television, you get that. The main problem is that the opposition parties is so unsuccessful in articulating a clear view, and even in deciding who’s the person who’s going to go there and articulate their view, and that, of course, in this moment is a major problem. Right now there’s no alternative. Berlusconi right now is the Italian political system.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: And with a weak and fractured opposition, Berlusconi keeps on his rampage against the press. This week, his government launched an inquiry into a political talk show that interviewed the prostitute he allegedly slept with.
[BERLUSCONI SPEAKS IN ITALIAN] In an interview, he again accused his critics of slander and called the Freedom of Speech March this weekend a joke.
[BERLUSCONI CONTINUES IN ITALIAN] But many Italians feel like Berlusconi is the joke, a bad one, on them, the clownish billionaire with his outrageous gaffes who nobody took seriously, at first. But as critics head to the streets, few are laughing now.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] For On the Media, I'm Megan Williams, in Rome.