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Italy: Berlusconi -- Singer Turned Politician Who Can't Stay Out Of The Limelight

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi seems unable to stay out of the limelight. A media magnate and one of Europe's richest men, he is himself an object of continuous media attention. In the latest developments in his colorful career, he faces a challenge to the immunity law which has blocked bribery charges against him. There is also opposition to a new media law which opponents say will allow him to extend his media empire even further.

Prague, 10 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The old saying in the advertising world is that any publicity is good publicity. By that measure, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is doing pretty well.

The smooth and well-dressed prime minister, who was once a cruise ship crooner, recently released -- without a trace of embarrassment -- an album of love-songs which he composed.

This move won the hearts of many Italians, and fascinated many others who were not quite sure if this was the kind of activity the country's top politician should be engaging in.

For analyst Gabriel von Toggenburg, of the European Academy at Bolzano in northern Italy, Berlusconi is a one of a new type of showman in politics.

"That goes also for Arnold Schwartzenegger, [the new governor of California], who has had such a success in the [United] States, and for other politicians, particularly from the right wing, where you find these kinds of self-made men who promote themselves," von Toggenburg said.

Von Toggenburg also names Austria's Joerg Haider, of the far-right Freedom Party, who took special self-promotional training in the United States once he entered mainstream politics as part of the ruling coalition in Vienna.

As for Berlusconi, the famous crime-fighting judge Antonio di Pietro has just given him a new round of publicity.

Di Pietro, disgruntled at the legal immunity which Berlusconi secured for himself by parliamentary vote, has collected almost a million signatures for a referendum which will ask Italians to overthrow the immunity law.

The Supreme Court in Rome ruled the request valid on 3 December and has sent it to the Constitutional Court for a decision on the referendum and on the legality of the immunity law itself. A ruling is expected before Christmas.

Before the immunity law was passed earlier this year, Berlusconi was being tried on charges of bribing legal authorities in a commercial takeover case. That was the latest in a string of legal cases stemming from Berlusconi's colorful business life.

Berlusconi is also at the center of another well-publicized dispute, one over the new media law passed by parliament last week. Supporters say it will bring much-needed vigor into Italy's ossified media landscape by allowing television companies to buy into radio and printed media.

Berlusconi's holding company Fininvest already controls the three-channel private television entity Mediaset. In addition, Berlusconi has influence as prime minister over the Italian state TV and radio service RAI. Further, his publishing house Mondadori is the biggest of its kind in Italy.

Given all that, critics say that if Mediaset and Mondadori are allowed to take over radio and press outlets, this will reduce still further Italy's freedom of information -- and access to independent and free media sources is one of the pillars of democracy.

The opposition has called on Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi not to sign the new media law within the required 30 days, but to send it back to parliament. Ciampi is still pondering what to do.

Attempts are being made to involve the European Union in the row, by having it investigate whether there is an excessive concentration of media power in Italy.

"What especially might be interesting under the terms of EU law is the question of media diversity, the question of the degree to which democracy depends on a diverse supply of media sources. And as you know, democracy is one of the founding values which are listed in Article Six of the EU treaty, and one could speculate whether this value of democracy could also be hurt by a system which is de facto so strongly monopolized as in Italy," Von Toggenburg says.

The analyst goes on to say that one could even speculate on the possibility of an Article Seven procedure -- that is, the imposition of sanctions by the EU's ruling Council of Ministers on a country which is incapable of establishing a free media system.

However, officials in Brussels say EU authorities are unlikely to react, at least at present, because they do not see sufficient grounds to do so.

Several years ago, the EU did react in defense of democracy. In an unprecedented move, the EU imposed sanctions on Austria when Joerg Haider's Freedom Party came to power in 2000 as part of a ruling coalition.

Von Toggenburg says, however, that Italy would probably not be subject to the same procedure: "I call it the asymmetrical effect of European values, in the sense that a state like Austria -- which has a fascist history so closely connected with that of Germany -- stands under a more severe scrutiny than Italy does."

There is a certain irony in the fact that the European Commission has said it backs the serious reservations expressed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United States about the conduct of the 7 December parliamentary elections in Russia.

The main ground for the criticism was that only the party backed by President Vladimir Putin was allowed full access to the media during the pre-election campaign. EU spokesman Diego de Ojeda said the EU fully agrees with the conclusions of the OSCE report.

"The European Union has participated, has fielded observers to the OSCE observation team [for the Russian election], and therefore their criticism -- or their praise -- and their recommendations for the future are also those of the EU and the EU stands behind the OSCE report," de Ojeda said.

The OSCE has already several years ago addressed the Italian issue, calling for a clear separation of interests between Berlusconi's activities as a media figure and his office as a political leader.