Campaigners for broadcasting freedom have targeted Silvio Berlusconi, the media magnate now in the Prime Minister's office in Rome, as "public enemy number one" when it comes to the defence of public broadcasting in Europe.
"The shocking state of affairs in Italy whereby the man who controls the private television sector is now trying to control the future of public broadcasting in the country makes a mockery of the European Union's commitment to public service," said John Barsby, the European Co-Chairman of the worldwide campaign Public Broadcasting For All. "It amounts to media dictatorship which should not be tolerated in any democratic state."
Barsby, a former BBC journalist is a member of the National Union of Journalists in Britain who with Arnold Amber, a union leader at the Canadian Broadcasting System in Toronto, leads an industry-wide alliance of journalists and media staff campaigning to defend and promote public service broadcasting around the world.
Meeting in Brussels on January 18th the campaign group, including representatives from Japan, Canada, the United States, South Africa and eleven European countries, decided to launch an international protest campaign over the situation in Italy where Berlusconi, the head of the dominant private sector media company Mediaset, is now exercising his power as Prime Minister to block overdue reform of the Italian public broadcaster RAI.
"Berlusconi continues to operate under a scandalous conflict of interest that has been largely ignored within the European Union," said Aidan White, General Secretary of the IFJ, which is co-ordinating the Public Broadcasting For All Campaign "Italian journalists and media workers want the public broadcasting system out of political hands and for its independence to be guaranteed, but Berlusconi is blocking much-needed reform."
The IFJ and the Public Broadcasting Campaign are backing the Italian journalists union, the FNSI, which is pressing for Parliamentary action for reform of the broadcasting system in spite of oppositions from the ruling parties. Proposals to take RAI out of a structure whereby political parties exercise undue influence over each of its three main channels have been around for some years, but they have been steadfastly opposed. "It is always a struggle to prise political fingers off the controls of broadcasting," say campaigners, "the only difference is that this is a battle being fought out in the heart of Europe, not in the twilight world of third-world despotism."
"This is an issue we shall take up with the European Union and the Council of Europe," said Aidan White. "Italy's prime minister, who used his television holdings to get to power, is now determined to keep public broadcasting in political hands. It suits his party interests, but it is a shocking abuse of power."
The Public Broadcasting for All Campaign and the IFJ's regional group the European Federation of Journalists is seeking meetings with European Union leaders and with senior officials of the Council of Europe.
"Politicians in Brussels preach pluralism and media independence to other countries seeking to join the European Union," says the IFJ, "but unless they deal with the embarrassing mess being created by Silvio Berlusconi they have no credibility. Berlusconi is public enemy number one when it comes to the fight for independence in broadcasting."