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Thursday, 21 February, 2002, 13:21 GMT
Italy's new superboss
Silvio Berlusconi in front of TV screens
Critics focus on Mr Berlusconi's media empire
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By William Horsley
BBC European Affairs Correspondent
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Silvio Berlusconi is not only Italy's prime minister and foreign minister but also its richest man, the head of a vast business empire spanning newspapers, TV and radio, film, advertising, insurance, food and construction.

His critics say he is about to set the seal on his personal dominance of Italy's business world with the help of a new law which is supposed to guard against conflicts of interest but which is too weak to be effective.


A political showdown is under way over the government's appointment of new directors to Italy's state-owned TV and radio service, RAI

Particular concern has focused on Mr Berlusconi's vast media empire and his influence on the appointment of state television's board of governors.

The leader of the political opposition, Francesco Rutelli, has condemned the proposal, saying "information in Italy cannot have a single owner".

And Italy's head of state, President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who must sign the new conflict of interest bill before it becomes law, warns "there can be no healthy democracy without pluralism of information."

But most Italian people appear indifferent. Mr Berlusconi boasts that 69% of them think he is doing a good job as prime minister. He has a big majority in both houses of parliament which should enable him to complete his current five-year term in office.

'Travesty'

This week parliament will consider a bill proposed by Mr Berlusconi and his allies. The law foresees a commission that would monitor alleged conflict of interest cases, but only after the event.

Italian parliament
Parliament is due to vote on the bill on Monday
If it finds evidence that a government decision was influenced by the prospect of personal gain it can refer it back to parliament.

The opposition condemns the plan as a travesty.

It objects that the bill lacks real penalties, the commission would be made up of Mr Berlusconi's own allies, and the prime minister and his associates would never in practice be challenged.

Critics have already raised questions about the way a lucrative contract to send information on the new euro currency to millions of Italian homes was awarded to Mondatori - Italy's largest publishing firm and a jewel in the crown of Mr Berlusconi's business empire.

TV trouble

A political showdown is under way, too, over the government's appointment of new directors to Italy's state-owned TV and radio service, RAI.


Mr Berlusconi's successful business career is seen as a sign of hope that he can push through much-needed reforms

The opposition objects that Mr Berlusconi's company, Mediaset, already owns Italy's three main commercial channels, which he has exploited for his political career.

Unless the rules are changed he would in effect control over 90% of Italy's broadcast media.

The government says it will follow normal custom by appointing directors who reflect the current balance of Italian politics and Mr Berlusconi promises exercise self-restraint and uphold media freedom.

Superboss

But for many Italians, Mr Berlusconi's business empire is not a concern but an asset.

Analysts say that Mr Berlusconi's successful business career is seen as a sign of hope that he can push through much-needed reforms.

Back in 1994 Silvio Berlusconi's first government was brought down after less than a year amid arguments about conflicts of interest and criminal investigations into his business dealings.

This time his critics are protesting again.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has warned that freedom of the press will be at risk in Italy without better checks and balances.

But Mr Berlusconi is in a position to set the rules himself, and he looks determined to do so as he sees fit.

See also:

21 Feb 02 | Europe
Italy set for business law clash
15 Feb 02 | Europe
Storm gathers around Italian TV
15 Aug 01 | Business
Berlusconi deadline nears
18 Jun 01 | Europe
Berlusconi replies to critics
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