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Italy: Berlusconi Plans Decree After Media Bill Fails

New York Times
December 17th, 2003

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi moved Tuesday to protect one of his family's television businesses after President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi rejected a bill that critics say would have benefited Mr. Berlusconi's media empire.

On Monday, Mr. Ciampi refused to sign the bill, which would relax limits on media ownership, and sent it back to Parliament in a setback for Mr. Berlusconi's political and media interests. The prime minister said Tuesday that his cabinet would adopt an emergency decree to shield Mediaset, the biggest private broadcaster in Italy, from the fallout. The Berlusconi family controls the company.

"As predicted, the decree will be done," Mr. Berlusconi told reporters in Strasbourg, France.

Mr. Ciampi delivered his rejection after some setbacks for Mr. Berlusconi, including the weekend collapse of the European Union constitutional talks that he led.

Mr. Berlusconi influences an estimated 95 percent of Italian television through political and business interests.

The decree, widely expected to be approved by the cabinet on Friday, would stop the Mediaset channel Rete 4 from having to move to satellite by Dec. 31, an action that would lower advertising revenues. A court had ordered the changes, but the bill on media ownership would have overruled the decision.

Mediaset urged the government to intervene, saying the measure would mean "the closing of Rete 4."

Despite pleas from the opposition, Mr. Ciampi had been broadly expected to approve the bill. It was the first time he refused to sign a bill into law for other than budget reasons.

The collapse of negotiations on the European Union constitution over the weekend brought Italy's six-month union presidency, and Mr. Berlusconi's hopes of a political lift, to a sour end.

"We could say that Berlusconi has not had a good week," said Franco Pavoncello, a professor of political science at John Cabot University in Rome.

With his term as president of the European Union ending, Mr. Berlusconi's fractious center-right coalition has demanded a settling of scores next month. Experts say the new setbacks could weaken his position going into the talks.

"It's a harsh blow to the executive power and above all to the prime minister," the newspaper La Stampa wrote on Tuesday in an editorial. "The one thing that is certain is that the coalition review has another delicate topic as of yesterday."

Mr. Ciampi said the media bill had failed to guarantee plurality in the media and could lead to forming dominant positions, especially in advertising.

It would ease limits on ownership and advertising revenues.

Critics say it favors the Berlusconi family's holding company, Fininvest, which controls the largest media empire in the country, and would enable the company to extend its reach.

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