Wed, May 30, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Italy on the brinkQ of a digital renaissance

Silvio Berlusconi’s influence in Italy’s media sector appears to be nearing its end

By ERIC PFANNER  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE, PARIS

Illustration: Mountain People

When Italians said good riddance to former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, it turned out that they were ready for more than just a political change. Since Berlusconi stepped down last year, returning to life as a media mogul, the digital era finally seems to have dawned in Italy.

Berlusconi’s TV company, Mediaset, an analog-era powerhouse that continued to dominate the Italian media scene well into his 17-year sojourn in or near the prime minister’s villa, has suffered greatly since he left office for the third and presumably final time. Advertising has fallen, earnings have plunged and more Italians are tuning in to alternatives like Sky Italia, the satellite TV broadcaster owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Perhaps even more striking is the way Italians are turning to the Web. Italy remains well behind most Western European countries in the reach of the Internet, in part because of policies Berlusconi pursued to protect his business empire, rivals and critics say. However, the spirit of change in Rome, ushered in by Berlusconi’s successor, Mario Monti, seems to have awakened Italians to the potential of the Web to make a difference.

Last week, Internet campaigners for greater transparency in Italian government claimed a small victory when the lower house of parliament, the Italian Chamber of Deputies, delayed a scheduled vote on the membership of the Authority for Communications Guarantees, or AGCOM, which regulates the media and telecommunications, including the Internet.

In a break from the past, when members of such commissions were appointed via backroom deals, Gianfranco Fini, president of the chamber, announced that candidates would have to file resumes, so that their applications could be considered on merit.

“For the first time in Italian history, the party system has given up making appointments in the dark, with no official candidates, and has instead accepted the principle of transparency and competence in decisionmaking,” proclaimed the Open Media Coalition, a group that has been calling for more openness in the selection process for AGCOM and other regulatory panels dealing with media issues. These include the data protection agency and the board of RAI, the Italian public broadcaster.

The push for more transparency in the regulatory process in Rome came as another Internet phenomenon, the blogger and comedian Beppe Grillo, was scoring his first big political successes. Candidates in Grillo’s Five Star Movement won mayoral elections last week in Parma and several smaller towns, riding a wave of Facebook and Twitter-fueled anger over corruption and business as usual.

Criticism of the selection process had ranged far and wide. Frank La Rue, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion of freedom of expression, recently wrote to the government, asking it to carry out public consultations on the nominations.

The selection of the new media and telecommunications regulator has attracted such broad interest because it is seen as a test of how much power Berlusconi still wields behind the scenes. Rivals of Mediaset have long complained that when he was prime minister, regulators favored his company and another politically connected giant, Telecom Italia. Several rival telecommunications companies, including Vodafone Italia, FastWeb and Wind, boycotted a recent farewell speech by the current head of the regulatory panel, Corrado Calabro, whose mandate expires in July.

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