Italo prexy rejects bill favoring Mediaset

ROME — Italy’s president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, has dealt Silvio Berlusconi’s government a humiliating blow by refusing to sign into law a controversial bill the prime minister’s critics say would boost his already vast influence over the country’s media.

Ciampi said the media bill does not safeguard plurality in the media and could lead to unfair dominance.

It’s a major setback for Berlusconi — as prime minister and as TV tycoon.

The new bill would change current media legislation (decreed by the Supreme Court) that is forcing Berlusconi’s dominant broadcaster, Mediaset, to shutter one of its terrestrial channels, Rete 4, or transfer it to satellite by Jan. 1. Also under the current law, pubcaster RAI, subject to control of the prime minister’s office, would have to stop collecting advertising coin on its RAI-3.

Ironically, Mediaset urged the government to come to its rescue Tuesday. “There are eight working days left until the Supreme Court’s deadline,” the top commercial broadcaster warned in a dramatic statement.

But Berlusconi is confident Rete 4 will not be blacked out. “I don’t think there is a risk (of that),” he said.

“Anyone who claims that in Italy there is no pluralism, both in TV and in the press, should be booed big-time,” he commented, caustically, in defending his government’s media law.

Conflicted business

The opposition is railing against the prospect of a prime minister drafting a decree to save a TV station that is part of a company he controls. “It’s totally abnormal,” said opposition MP Vincenzo Vita, a former communications undersecretary.

Besides allowing Mediaset and RAI to hold on to their three channels, the rejected media law intended to raise the cap on advertising revenue and also allow cross-ownership of TV stations and newspapers starting in 2009.The bill had been slammed by foes as a Christmas present from Berlusconi to himself.

“I will take into account what the head of the state thinks and also possible changes he might propose,” Berlusconi said after a meeting with Ciampi. “If the changes are intelligent, Parliament will also take them into account.”

The media bill must go back to Parliament for further debate, and then back to Ciampi who — under Italy’s political system — will be forced to sign it.

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