Berlusconi Clamps Down on Press

In 1925, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini created a propaganda unit designed to control what journalists write, disseminating positive information about his regime and censoring the negative reports. Eighty-four years later, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi seems to be taking a page from Mussolini's playbook.

Berlusconi, whose sex scandals have been front-page news for months, will inaugurate a "media task force" next month in an attempt to control not only the Italian press but also the foreign media reporting in Italy. Its aim, he says, is to stamp out "bad news" and replace it with "truthful good news," according to Tourism Minister Michela Vittoria Brambilla, a former model and once-starlet of Berlusconi's private Mediaset television channels, who has been named to lead the group. "Our first job will be to monitor all the foreign press, including dailies, periodicals, and television in every latitude, from Japan to Peru," she said earlier this week. "Then we will bombard those newsrooms with truthful and positive news."

Italy's record on press freedom is already spotty. A 2009 report by American-based Freedom House listed the Italian press as only "partly free" (the only other European country to get the same dubious label is Turkey), in part because much of it is owned by Berlusconi himself. His holdings include two newspapers and three private television channels. As prime minister, he also exercises control over the country's three public television networks through his authority to name their boards of directors. But all that power has not prevented newspapers from reporting the tawdry details of his affairs—and Berlusconi from seeking to gag them. He regularly files lawsuits against both Italian and foreign news organizations that print derogatory stories about him, including the Spanish El País for running photos of nude beauties at his Sardinian villa parties. "What is happening is incredible," says Franco Siddi, head of the National Federation of the Italian Press. "He [Berlusconi] should know that in a democracy there are limits to his power."

Members of the media task force will monitor the Internet for stories written about Italy. Those journalists who are writing about wine, monuments, museums, and other cultural icons will be left alone, according to Brambilla. Others, especially those who report about the prime minister's sex scandals, will be under heavy scrutiny. They will be invited to roundtables, sent bulletins, and fed "positive" story ideas. "Berlusconi has every right to do this," says Brambilla. "Now we are exporting only insulting headlines to the rest of the world. The risks are potentially devastating for trade, tourism, and the 'made in Italy' brand."

Berlusconi told supporters earlier this week that derogatory coverage should be viewed as an offense against the state. He has blamed the media for publishing "science fiction" and says there is a left-wing conspiracy driving the scandals. Brambilla went a step further, blaming an unnamed "anti-Italian group working against Italy with the single aim of discrediting and destroying the prime minister." But veteran watchers of Italian politics believe Berlusconi is doing that entirely on his own.