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Anchor’s Ouster Stirs Furor Over Berlusconi’s Oversight of Media

Times Staff Writer

When he first started running for public office more than a decade ago, Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media tycoon who became prime minister, was often ribbed as Sua Emittenza -- “His Broadcastership.” Allegations that his vast television and publishing empire posed a serious conflict of interest with running the country have followed him ever since.

The latest controversy surrounds the dismissal of one of Italy’s most popular and respected anchormen, Enrico Mentana, from the nightly newscast on the Berlusconi-owned Channel 5. After 13 years, Mentana was taken off the air, given other duties and replaced by the editor of Panorama, a Berlusconi-owned magazine.

Mentana’s removal immediately raised concerns that Berlusconi was acting to assure the media’s bland obedience. Mentana was known for independence and for occasionally airing reports critical of the prime minister or his right-wing party.

When Mentana told viewers Nov. 11 that he was being replaced, he pointedly said that his show “achieved success thanks to the relationship it managed to establish with audiences that it was at the service of the public and not this or that politician or businessman.

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“We have always tried to remain faithful to that unwritten pact.”

Mentana’s bosses said he was being promoted to the post of network “editorial director.” It was not immediately clear what his new duties would entail, but he would no longer be in front of the camera.

Journalist unions and opposition politicians immediately cried foul. They pointed out that campaigning for elections was in effect underway, and it would benefit Berlusconi to have a friendly media. Furthermore, Berlusconi is deep in battles over his budget and promised tax cuts that could threaten the survival of his government.

Although elections are not scheduled until 2006, Berlusconi has said he may call them sooner if he cannot push tax cuts through Parliament.

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“We hope we are not dealing with another crackdown on the power of information,” said Franco Siddi, the head of an Italian journalists union. And the staff on Mentana’s newscast, TG5, also protested in a statement: “We are worried this decision could put TG5’s independence at risk.”

Channel 5 is one of three national television networks owned by Berlusconi’s family-run empire, Mediaset. As head of government, Berlusconi also exercises enormous influence over the RAI state broadcaster and its three television channels. All told, Berlusconi controls or influences 90% of Italian television.

He also owns the country’s largest publishing house, a major advertising conglomerate and stakes in several newspapers and magazines.

Mentana is the third high-profile newscaster or news talk show host to be yanked from TV since Berlusconi was reelected in 2001. In addition, a satire program that poked fun at the prime minister was axed after one episode, and RAI’s president, Lucia Annunziata, quit in May, accusing the government of interference that “stifles” any semblance of press freedom. She charged that the broadcasting network had become nothing more than a “mailbox” for requests from Berlusconi.

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European Parliament lawmakers and press watchdog groups have long singled out Italy for what they see as a concentration of media ownership in few hands and the accompanying rise in censorship. As a result, Italy has been falling in rankings of worldwide press freedom. Reporters Without Borders ranked it 39th in a survey of 167 countries, the worst position of any Western European country except Spain. (Spain tied with Italy because of threats to journalists from Basque separatists, the organization said.)

“Silvio Berlusconi’s conflict of interests as prime minister and at the same time owner of a media empire continued to affect the independence of the broadcasting sector,” the organization said in a report released last month, adding that court decisions against journalists also poisoned the media environment in Italy.

Berlusconi’s supporters contend that most of the criticism is politically motivated. Fedele Confalonieri, chairman of Mediaset, dismissed concerns that Channel 5 would be hurt by this latest shakeup and spoke rosily of Mentana’s future.

“Someone who has done as well as he has is bound to do well in a new role,” Confalonieri said. “With his speed, his quick wit, he could be a new David Letterman.”

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