This article originally appeared in Global Journalist

LEFT: Berlusconi jokes around on the set of Porta a Porta, which is a late night talk show on RAI. RIGHT: Demonstrators hold a banner that hints at the scandals surrounding Berlusconi. The banner reads, “Gianpy, the brunette you sent me was a real dog wasn’t she?” Gianpy is businessman Gianpolo Tarantini, who has provided escorts in the past.

news magazine The Economist ran a close-up photo of a pensive Berlusconi with the headline “Why Silvio Berlusconi is unfit to lead Italy” after he returned to power following a seven-year hiatus in 2001 (Subsequent re-elections earned additional covers, one with the headline “Not Again” and another that
read “Mamma Mia!”). Le Monde in Paris, Der Spiegel in Hamburg, and El País in Madrid have all run multiple editorials criticizing Berlusconi’s flirtations with law suits, conflict of interest problems, sex scandals and other alleged abuses of power.

But at home, pollsters say, his approval levels remain remarkably stable. “The Italian political spectrum is polarized, and so you rarely see Italian politicians with sky-high approval numbers except for brief periods because a large part of the electorate is predisposed to oppose them,” says Maria Rossi, co-director of the polling firm Opinioni.
“But in the case of Berlusconi, his support among those he can realistically expect support from is almost unwavering. They like the fact that he seems to beat the system, and they hope he’ll help them do the same thing.”

In its latest report, released in October, Reporters Without Borders ranked Italy 49th in the world in terms of press freedom, behind Surinam, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Mali, among others. It slipped from 44th in 2008 and 35th in 2007, which was its best ranking ever (and when Berlusconi was out of power). On the current list Italy ranks behind every other member

of the European Union 15 — the 15 western member states that made up the EU before its 2004 expansion that added ten new members, mostly from the former Warsaw Pact.

But how much of that can be tied to Berlusconi’s control over the media?

“A lot of it is due to Berlusconi,” Affinito says. “But the problem isn’t Berlusconi, but rather the changes in the culture that he fostered. Eventually, he’ll die or he’ll retire. But he has changed the whole system. That is the real problem we are facing.”

In Italy, there are several ways to assert power over the media: interest groups such as political parties, labor unions or industrial lobbies own almost all the major media outlets in the country. Exerting pressure or influence on that group can have an impact on the media outlet’s coverage.

For example, the country’s leading business daily, Il Sole/24 Ore, is controlled by the industrial association Confindustria. The media monitoring company and research group Censis has noted that as government talks on regulating industry approach, the newspaper’s criticisms of government become less frequent. Censis also noted a similar trend with La Stampa, the Turin daily owned by the same group that controls carmaker Fiat while the government was negotiating an aid package for the auto industry earlier this decade.

It is very easy to make libel charges against Italian media. According to Argia Bignami, a Rome attorney who specializes in intellectual property issues, an article or television news piece can be considered libelous unless it meets three criteria: it must be true, it must be newsworthy and must meet standards for public decency. The first condition is easy to prove, but the second is more subjective, and the third is open to wide interpretation.

“The court will throw out weak or flawed cases, but the process is still very slow and very expensive,” Bignami says. “A public figure can bleed a media outlet dry, even if the judge rules in favor of the media outlet. And it’s easy to imagine that when that happens, the next time the same outlet sends a journalist to go toe-to-toe against a powerful figure they think twice about being as aggressive as they could be.”

The Economist is a good example of this strategy. Berlusconi’s libel charges against the magazine were dismissed by a Milan judge but not until September of 2008, more than seven years after the suit was filed. Berlusconi was ordered to replay $1.2 million in court costs (which he did 11 months later), and The Economist has not backed away from its criticisms of Berlusconi.

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