As TV gets political, Italians turn it off

A new law may boost the Italian leader's media clout.

As Italy heads into the age of digital television, growing numbers of discontented Italians are turning off their TV sets and heading out to the theater.

Last month, Esterni, a small pro-arts organization in Milan, called on television viewers to strike, offering discount museum and theater tickets around the country to anyone who handed in their TV remote control handset for the day.

"We're not political," said Barbara Specchia, one of the strike organizers. "We just think for too many people television is the only source of entertainment, information, and culture. Too many people never look outside."

The group has been organizing strikes for seven years, with record results this year as more than 400,000 people switched off.

But to many Italians, television is not just a cultural sedative; it has become a pervasive political tool, and spurning television is, therefore, a political gesture.

Government figures show that the average Italian watches television for four hours a day and, since Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi controls most of what is broadcast, critics say that the nation is being fed just one political line.

According to one of Italy's leading authors, Umberto Eco, Italy is living under a new kind of dictatorship, the "media regime." The difference between Benito Mussolini's fascist regime and a media regime, Mr. Eco says, is that "in fascist times, people knew that the newspapers and the radio were only communicating government press releases." In Italy today, political opponents are given airtime, Eco says, but they are never allowed to have the last word.

"A media regime does not need to send its opponents to jail. It silences them," he wrote in La Repubblica newspaper earlier this month.

Several satirists and critics of Berlusconi have been forced off state television Radio Televisione Italiana in the 2-1/2 years since Mr. Berlusconi was elected.

And a media bill to be assessed in parliament later this month, designed to open up and modernize the Italian television market, could also present an opportunity for Berlusconi's media empire to expand into newspapers and radio.

Many artists and thinkers now see the country's theaters as the last escape route from a "media dictatorship" in the heart of Europe.

But even on stage, the threat of lawsuits hovers. "They want to shut our mouths," Franca Rame told La Repubblica newspaper this week as she and her husband, Nobel Prize-winning playwright Dario Fo, were sued for defamation over their satirical play about Berlusconi, which is currently touring Italy.

After a week performing their play, "The Two Headed Anomaly," in Berlusconi's home town of Milan, a Forza Italia senator, Marcello Dell'Utri, sued the artists, claiming one million euros compensation for their "baseless attack" on his reputation.

"There is great confusion in Italy between satire and politics," said Paolo Romani, spokesman on communication for Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.

"These left-wing comedians don't make me laugh. They dress up in funny clothes and say they are artists. But they are making extremely serious personal accusations that have nothing to do with satire."

In the show, which has been a sell-out in Rome, Verona, and Milan so far, the septuagenarian playwright plays Silvio Berlusconi and Ms. Rame plays his long-suffering wife, Veronica Lario.

The play depicts Berlusconi visiting Vladimir Putin in a luxury villa in Sicily, where the Russian leader is gunned down by Chechen assassins. He is killed instantly and Berlusconi is injured trying to help him. Part of Putin's brain is transplanted into the Italian prime minister's head, transforming his personality. Eventually, after being accused of every crime in the book, from changing laws to favor his private business interests and having connections with the Mafia, Italy's prime minister is given hair-raising electric-chair treatment for his damaged brain.

Mr. Fo says that artists who criticize the prime minister are being "defenestrated" metaphorically from the state broadcaster RAI for the same reasons left-wing dissidents were literally thrown out of police station windows in the 1970s, when Fo wrote his Nobel Prize- winning "Accidental Death of an Anarchist."

Late last year, Sabina Guzzanti, a vitriolic critic of the whole Italian political class, was barred from the state television network, RAI. Her show, "RAIot (pronounced "Riot"): Weapons of Mass Distraction," was suspended after Mediaset, the prime minister's TV network, sued for defamation. She took her act onto the stage in protest, performing on simultaneous screens for packed theaters around the country. RAI managers said they could not afford the legal fees more Guzzanti shows could notch up.

Italy was ranked lowest for freedom of expression in Europe in a 2002 Reporters Without Borders ranking. The press freedom representative for the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, Freimut Duve, has called on Italy's prime minister to dissociate himself from his media empire, saying it has created a "quasi monopoly."

But Berlusconi argues that "Italy is among the first for absolute freedom of the press" and his lawyers say that he is victim of a constant stream of unfounded personal attacks from left-wing critics.

"Berlusconi is very tolerant," said Nicolo Ghedini, one of the prime minister's lawyers. "But Italy is a strange country. If you want to defend yourself from defamatory accusations here you are accused of censoring artists."

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