April 5, 2006

Italy PM accused of abusing TV power

By Robin Pomeroy

ROME (Reuters) - Silvio Berlusconi's foes cried foul on
Wednesday when the prime minister said he would appear on one
of his own television channels just four days before a general
election, possibly breaking Italy's electoral laws.

The media tycoon said he would be the sole guest on a
channel owned by his Mediaset group because his challenger in
next weekend's general election, Romano Prodi, had declined an
invitation to take part.

News of the unscheduled program threw the center-left
opposition into a fury.

"This is a clear violation of the established rules," said
Piero Fassino, leader of the largest opposition party, calling
on Italy's media watchdog to stop the broadcast taking place.

Berlusconi defended his TV appearance plan, insisting it
did not break Italy's "par condicio" law which sets strict
rules for politicians' broadcast appearances in the run-up to

"I will be interviewed by left-wing journalists so I won't
violate the par condicio," he said.

But the watchdog in charge of policing the broadcasting
rules contradicted Berlusconi's assertion that it had approved
his appearance. "We have never given any authorization, we know
nothing," Agcom said in a statement.


Berlusconi has already staged one coup de theater this week
ahead of the April 9-10 vote, announcing at the end of a
head-to-head TV debate with Prodi on Monday that he would
abolish an unpopular property tax.

More than 80 percent of Italians own their homes and pay on
average 189 euros ($232) a year in the ICI tax.

"This is what people wanted to hear. Everyone hates ICI and
promising to scrap it is a real vote winner. Prodi is
finished," said Alicia Moccia, a Rome pensioner and homeowner.

On Tuesday, Berlusconi shocked many Italians when he said
people would have to be "coglioni" to vote for Prodi -- a
vulgar term that literally means testicles but is also an
insult equivalent to "asshole" or "prick" in English.

"Berlusconi is no longer fit to lead our country," Prodi
told an election rally in Rome.

The unexpected television appearance added more tension to
the campaign -- one of the most acrimonious on record.

Berlusconi, who owns a vast media empire that includes TV,
magazines and films, has always dismissed any suggestion that
his media interests have helped his political career.

On the contrary, he says at least 80 percent of journalists
are left-wing and complains of being vilified in the media.

Prodi said last week that he would no longer appear on
Mediaset -- which owns three out of Italy's seven main TV
channels -- because he felt they were biased.

Berlusconi said this was simply an abuse of the par
condicio rules because it meant that if Prodi decided not to
appear on TV, he would also be denied access.

"With this strategy of theirs, I haven't been able to go on
any TV program during the heart of the electoral campaign," he
said in a statement.

"The authority asked that there be a guaranteed debate,
that there be an opponent. Mediaset called me back and said
there would be some left-wing journalists."

Berlusconi's broadcasting company received its third fine
in as many weeks on Monday for having given too much airtime to
its founder in the run-up to the election.