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Thousands Rally In Rome To Defend Press Freedom; Berlusconi Dismisses As A "Joke"

ALESSANDRA RIZZO   10/ 3/09 02:42 PM ET   AP

Italy Press Freedom

ROME — Tens of thousands of people, including journalists and media rights activists, gathered in a Rome square Saturday to defend press freedom, accusing Premier Silvio Berlusconi of trying to silence critical voices.

Berlusconi, a media magnate, has dismissed the accusations as a "joke" and the demonstration as a "farce." He said this week that there is more press freedom in Italy than in any other Western country.

Berlusconi owns the country's largest private broadcaster. As premier, he and his conservative coalition have indirect control on the state-run broadcaster RAI.

The premier has recently sued two leftist newspapers over their coverage of a sex scandal that has been engulfing him. He has said during an appearance on RAI that there are "too many scoundrels" in the media.

Many at the rally in a packed Piazza del Popolo in central Rome wore T-shirts saying, "Now sue me, too!" Others held up signs saying, "Scoundrel" or "Art. 21" – a reference to the Italian constitutional article that guarantees freedom of speech and of the press.

The demonstration was organized by the journalist union, and it drew several members of the center-left opposition. Crowd estimates varied significantly, as is often the case in Italy: Organizers said 300,000 people attended; Rome police estimated 60,000.

Berlusconi's critics say he wants to intimidate journalists and manipulate coverage.

"The problem of press freedom in Italy isn't that they can't print the news, it's that when they print it they receive pressure or intimidation," said Angelo Motta, a 22-year-old political science student who traveled from northern Italy to attend the demonstration.

Media rights group Reporters Without Borders, which took part in the rally, issued a statement this week urging Berlusconi "to put a stop to his attacks and lawsuits against the press" and expressing "support for the media the Italian leader has targeted."

Berlusconi maintains that freedom of the press cannot be confused with freedom to insult an elected official. His spokesman, Paolo Bonaiuti, said: "I have yet to hear a real and concrete reason that justifies all this alarm."

Italian newspapers have been filled with details of the premier's sex scandal, which emerged last spring when Berlusconi's wife announced she was divorcing him, citing his fondness for younger women.

Berlusconi is not the first sitting Italian premier to take legal action against the media.

In 1999, then-Premier Massimo D'Alema, a former Communist, sued a leading cartoonist over a cartoon that suggested D'Alema's coalition partners were on a list of alleged KGB spies. The 3 billion lire (the equivalent of about euro1.6 million) lawsuit was eventually dropped.

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Suzanne Edwards in Rome contributed to this report.

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Filed by Lila Shapiro  |