The nexus between political power and media ownership in Italy has become somewhat of a paradigm for everything a modern democracy should avoid at all costs. The concept of separation of powers, advocated by Locke in the distant 17th century, has regressed to such an extent that most Italians now deem it normal that their Prime Minister owns half of the nation’s media market.

Despite endless examples of obsequiousness among journalists and media commentators, all too ready to sweet talk Silvio Berlusconi’s anti-worker policy record and skim over his self-tailored legislation, some have put their jobs on the line and publicly held the PM accountable for his actions. This often resulted in journalists losing their jobs.

In mid-2002, a few months after Berlusconi labelled two journalists and a comedian criminals for criticising his tenure, they were permanently suspended from public broadcasting. Their outcast served as an example for everyone else and triggered a wave of self-censorship across all media.

However, technological improvement may be shaping the Italian media landscape in such way as to undermine Berlusconi’s future grip on national media.

The latest example is that of journalists that circumvented legislation prohibiting political debates on the eve of regional elections by broadcasting the political program Raiperunanotte live via web and cable television. The program achieved a record 13% viewers’ share, and brought right into Italians’ homes candidates’ programs rather than the usual mix of cheaply sexed up TV game shows and cheesy soap operas.

According to Michele Sorice, professor of Professor of Political Communication and of Media Studies at LUISS University in Rome: “In Italy we are seeing the establishment of a grassroots communication system … new technologies allow the birth of new forms of social and political organisation: this scares many, but it’s a unstoppable process.”

Despite sharing similar views regarding the potential of new technologies, Bruno Mascitelli, lecturer of Italian Studies at Melbourne’s Swinburne University, points out that financial backing may ultimately determine which programs live and die on new technology platforms.

“Undoubtedly technology is changing the Italian media landscape but those, like Berlusconi, that own traditional advertising networks, may end up prevailing there too,” he said.

Few doubt that Berlusconi will fight back in the new technology war. While some believe he may try to censor new forms of communication, other think he may use his economic leverage to dominate new media markets and force alternative programs such as Raiperunanotte onto the sidelines.

Regardless of what happens, we can all cherish in witnessing a light of journalistic independence opening up in an otherwise pretty dimly lit Italian media market.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey