April 5, 2006

Italian PM forced to drop TV appearance

By Robin Pomeroy

ROME (Reuters) - Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was
forced to back out of a TV appearance on Wednesday amid
accusations he was abusing media fairness laws ahead of next
week's general election.

The media tycoon was to be the sole guest on a prime time
show on a channel owned by his Mediaset group because his
challenger, Romano Prodi, had declined an invitation to take
part with him.

When news of the unscheduled evening TV appearance emerged,
furious opposition politicians said Berlusconi was abusing the
"par condicio" law which sets strict rules for politicians'
broadcast appearances in the run-up to elections.

"This would be a grave violation of the law of the land --
the par condicio which stops media over-exposure and defends
democracy," said Prodi.

Berlusconi initially defended his plan to appear on Canale
5 TV, insisting it did not break the rules which require equal
air time for opposing political figures.

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

But the watchdog in charge of policing broadcasting rules
contradicted Berlusconi's assertion that it had approved his

Agcom issued a statement saying the law decreed that any
prominent politician could only appear on such a show if he was
face-to-face with his counterpart from the rival camp.

By mid-afternoon, several hours ahead of the show, the
prime minister backed down, a journalist at Canale 5 told


Berlusconi has 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 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 planned 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 Prodi's refusal to participate was simply
an abuse of the equal time 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.

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