What if Fox News ran the USA? Some people think that's already happened, but in Italy a human experiment has been underway for three decades, culminating in a mass television culture that degrades women and allows a 1950s style "Mad Man" to party on with almost no checks. Some Italians are fed up.
Waving banners scrawled with "Berlusconi is bad for Italy's health," more than a hundred thousand people rallied to protest for a free press in Italy over the weekend. Not surprisingly, Italy's newspapers and television barely covered the event in Rome's Piazza del Popolo.
The Italian Press Federation organized the gathering after nearly two decades of growing interference in free journalism within and around the media empire owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The protest capped a summer in which Berlusconi's wife dumped him for allegedly having an underage girlfriend, a pornographic video and pictures that surfaced from his Sardinian party house. Last week, journalists on one of the government-owned broadcasting channels RAI 2, interviewed a woman, Patrizia d'Addario, who claimed she took money to have sex with the Italian leader. The government promptly withdrew the journalists' contracts, even though D'Addario's tell-all book about her romp with the septuagenarian has been covered widely in Europe.
While half of Italy apparently still supports the randy PM, the firings are only the latest in a long history of incursions against press freedom by the Berlusconi government. Italy's journalists are not in fear for their lives as are reporters in Zimbabwe or Russia, but they are in fear for their jobs. Many leading broadcasters and writers have been fired or quietly relieved of work over the years for criticizing the Prime Minister. They, and their commentary, have been replaced by young women whose rise in broadcasting is related to their ability to perform the "stachetto" - a kind of partially clothed pole-dance without the pole that is the chief entrance test for women who want to join Berlusconi's television empire. Only a few journalists remain with the access and courage to question, or even cover, scandalous personal and official behavior by the PM that would, in the United States and most other European countries, have provoked drastic regime change.
Recently, Berlusconi sued the director of La Repubblica, one of the country's leading newspapers, for printing ten questions about the PM's relationship with a teenage model. Berlusconi had previously urged businesses not to advertise in the left-leaning daily.
A day before the protest, Jean-Francois Julliard, director of an international press freedom group, Reporters Without Borders, said Berlusconi could soon join the list of that group's list of "predators of freedom of the press" -- making him the first European leader so honored. "We know of similar cases only in Belarus and Zimbabwe," Julliard said, referring to Berlusconi's advice to newspaper advertisers.
Among the journalists to have felt the sting of Italian press censorship is Swedish-Italian filmmaker Erik Gandini, whose revealing documentary on Italian television culture, "Videocracy," was effectively banned from coverage in the Italian press. Government television conglomerate RAI refused even to broadcast a 30-second trailer for the film, which traces the rise of Berlusconi's banal, tits-and-ass style television, implicating it as a form of mind-control machinery that keeps him in power. The film is filled with disturbing imagery, taken straight from Italian tube and behind the scenes, where the makers of the shows reveal themselves. In one scene, Berlusconi ally, Sardinia party buddy and top television agent Lele Mora opines that although Berlusconi "isn't Mussolini, he's still a great leader." Mora then proudly displays the fascist symbols he keeps on his phone, and his fascist music ring tones. In other footage, from one of Berlusconi's campaign commercial, average Italians women and girls sing a song with the refrain, "Thank God Silvio exists."
Gandini did not attend the Rome protest, but I talked with him and you can read the interview here at AlterNet.