ROME - When he first started running for public office more than a decade ago, Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media tycoon who became prime minister, was often ribbed as Sua Emittenza - "His Broadcastership." Allegations that his vast television and publishing empire posed a serious conflict of interest with running the country have followed him ever since.
The latest controversy surrounds the dismissal of one of Italy's most popular and respected anchormen, Enrico Mentana, from the nightly newscast on the Berlusconi-owned Channel 5. After 13 years in the job, Mentana was given other duties and replaced by the editor of a Berlusconi-owned magazine.
Mentana's removal immediately raised concerns that Berlusconi was again acting to assure bland obedience from the media. Mentana was known for independence and for occasionally airing reports critical of the prime minister or his right-wing political party.
In announcing to his evening television audience that he was being replaced, Mentana pointedly said his show "achieved success thanks to the relationship it managed to establish with audiences that it was at the service of the public and not this or that politician or businessman.
"We have always tried to remain faithful to that unwritten pact."
Mentana's bosses said he was being promoted and given the title of editorial director for the network. It was not immediately clear what his new duties would entail, but he would no longer be in front of the camera.
Journalist unions and opposition politicians immediately cried foul. They pointed out that campaigning for elections is essentially under way, and it would benefit Berlusconi to have friendly media. Furthermore, Berlusconi is deep in battles over his budget and promised tax cuts that threaten the survival of his government.
"We hope we are not dealing with another crackdown on the power of information," the head of the journalists union, Franco Siddi, told reporters. And the staff on Mentana's newscast, TG5, also protested in a statement, "We are worried this decision could put TG5's independence at risk."
Channel 5 is one of three national television networks owned by Berlusconi's family-run empire, Mediaset. In addition, as head of government, Berlusconi exercises enormous influence over the three television channels operated by the state broadcaster, RAI. Berlusconi controls or influences 90 percent of Italian television.
He also owns Italy's largest publishing house and a major advertising conglomerate and has pieces of several newspapers and magazines.
Mentana is the third high-profile newscaster or news talk show host to be yanked from TV since Berlusconi came to power in 2001. In addition, a satire program that poked fun at the prime minister was axed after one episode, and the president of RAI, Lucia Annunziata, quit in May, accusing the government of political interference that "stifles" any semblance of news freedom. She charged that the broadcasting network had become nothing more than a "mailbox" for requests from Berlusconi.
European Parliament lawmakers and media watchdog groups have long singled out Italy for what they see as a detrimental concentration of media ownership in few hands and the increase in censorship that goes with it.
As a result, Italy has been falling steadily in rankings of worldwide news freedom. Most recently, Reporters Without Borders put it in 39th place in a survey of 167 countries, the worst position of any Western European country except Spain. (Spain tied with Italy because of threats to journalists from Basque separatists, the organization said.)
"Silvio Berlusconi's conflict of interests as prime minister and at the same time owner of a media empire continued to affect the independence of the broadcasting sector," the organization said in a report released last month, adding that court decisions against journalists also poisoned the media environment in Italy.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.