Is Silvio Berlusconi Bad News?

Italy's Prime Minister is being blamed for the state TV broadcaster's refusal to air graphic and brutal footage of police actions during the G8 protests

Ever since Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi took office in May, the 64-year-old media mogul has been under fire for everything from charges of conflict of interest to petty corruption. Not that he isn't used to it. After all, for years he's been a veritable Rupert Murdoch of the Italian media world.

The conservative Berlusconi's business empire spans not just television and publishing, but financial services. Yet he hasn't divested himself of many of those holdings since becoming Premier. Now he's being dragged into a brouhaha over whether the government under his watch is censoring video footage of the street protests at the G8 meeting held in Genoa July 20-22.

Rai, Italy's state-run television and radio broadcasting system, has put on hold a one-hour documentary that allegedly includes gruesome footage of police beating protesters during the three-day summit, says Carlo Freccero, the system's director. In a press statement, Freccero said he was advised by Rai's board to delay broadcast of the documentary, called Social Forum Special, which was to run on the weekly program Straculto at 10:45 p.m. on July 26. Critics immediately accused the Berlusconi administration of censoring the news, and Italian newspapers have since been filled with articles about the controversy.


  Rai spokespeople said the footage in question was deemed "disturbing" by the board and that the decision to suspend the program was based on "giving all sides equal opportunity to present their story." They pointed out that similar footage -- about five minutes' worth -- ran on the evening news at 8 p.m. on July 26. Because comments from police and military police commander Sergio Siracusa were included, that report was deemed to be "balanced" and "appropriate" for broadcast.

Freccero certainly isn't happy with the decision. After announcing he couldn't air the program, he told the Italian press that "the future of information on Rai is in play." He implied that the board is withholding the footage from the public because it puts the police and the government in a bad light.

The documentary includes testimonies from protesters, many of whom have faces swollen from beatings. Also recorded was the police raid of the Genoa Social Forum, where 100 demonstrators were put under custody and then detained in various jails throughout northern Italy. And there is additional footage of the death of 23-year-old Carlo Giuliani, who was shot by a 20-year-old military police officer during the riots.

Rai officials adamantly insist "we are not withholding footage to censor the truth. There has already been plenty on the air." But the program won't run unless it is edited to guarantee what the board considers "balanced presentation," the broadcaster says.


  Meanwhile, Berlusconi has further angered his opposition by publicly defending the police actions as "legitimate" and refusing to support an independent commission to investigate possible abuses. "The left," he said to Italian national daily La Repubblica, "is masochistic and out to defend violent protesters." But government officials in several European countries have criticized the Italian police. Hans-Christian Stroebele, a member of Germany's Green Party, charged police acted in violation of the Geneva Convention on the handling of prisoners. Berlusconi disagrees.

There is no evidence to suggest that Berlusconi himself ordered the plug to be pulled on the program. But the G8 protests and reaction by the police were the first big political challenge faced by his administration since his election in May, and the public reaction so far -- not just in Italy but across the Continent -- is that he isn't handling the backlash very skillfully. That could cripple his efforts to get his new administration off the ground.

"The evidence, whether accompanied by narration or not, speaks for itself," says Cinzia Ballarin, responsible for gathering testimonies for the Genoa Social Forum, a nongovernmental citizens' rights group. "Everyone would have preferred a balanced approach, but from the start, not de facto." Any more controversies like this, and Berlusconi could be in for a rough tenure as Prime Minister.

By Kate Carlisle in Rome

Edited by Beth Belton

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