Sunday, March 19, 2006

After a long silence, we are starting up again for the last four weeks of the Italian election campaign; very tight and getting more exciting every day.
Both before and after the poll on 9th. April seniors in my Italian politics class will be giving their comments - the first is by Derrick Fiedler and addresses that thorny question (in a country which is a "videocracy" in Giovanni Sartori's words) of equal access and conditions in the media. Derrick wrote this before Tuesday's debate between Berlusconi and Prodi and will be coming back to comment on that.

Par Condicio

The ‘par condicio’ law is quite a rain on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s parade. After a long period of building and reigning over a media empire in Italy—from his private ownership of Mediaset (which consists of three channels, a near total monopoly of private TV) to his control, as head of the government, of the three public RAI channels—Berlusconi in practice influences 90% of Italian television. One might think that such media imperium would secure certain victory at the elections polls in April—but one would think wrongly.
Through foresight and as a reaction to Mr. Berlusconi's power, the Parliament of 1996-2001 was able to draft legislation which effectively limited the advantage of Berlusconi, particularly during elections. Law n.28 of 22 February 2000 was passed “to promote and regulate, with the aim of guaranteeing parity of treatment and impartiality respecting all political subjects, the access to means of information for political communication,” as well as to “promote and regulate access to means of information during the campaigns for elections to the European Patliament, for regional and administrative political elections, and for every referendum.” The name of the law, ‘par condicio’ is Latin for equal treatment. It is meant to provide the main majority and opposition parties with equal space and time on radio and television, limits political commercials, and sets guidelines for news programs.
Now, Berlusconi is thinking, “what good is it to dominate the media if I can’t even use it to my advantage when I need it most?” And the answer is: not much. That is why he has been attempting to get rid of it—without much success. His other problem (in addition to the law itself) is that his coalition partners don’t completely trust him either, and they don’t want their party platforms to be drowned out by a coalition leader that holds the only megaphone. It is because of the combined, stiff opposition from the left coalition, l’Unione (the Union) and the Northern League (LN) and Democratic Union of the Center (Udc) that the amendment to the ‘par condicio’ law proposed by Lucio Malan (vice president of Forza Italia) was shelved. This proposal was intended to change the regulation of radio and television space from equal division among the main parties to proportional division according to a party’s parliamentary representation, leaving only 10% of air time for equal division. Berlusconi himself has said “It’s not right that a party like Forza Italia has the same space as a party just emerging under a new symbol and for the first time.”
But Berlusconi and his supporters have tried to turn the the law to their advantage, however and brought on some backlash from the intellegentsia. Giovanni Sartori doyen of Italian political scientists and commentators, wrote in Corriere della Sera: “The scandalous point is that under the pretense of ‘par condicio’ the censure, the silencer, is extended to books and then to all intellectual activities…. [T]hey want an election without any possibility of ascertaining the truth, without any possibility of control and assessment by experts.” In addition, there has been objection to a letter written by President Ciampi to RAI, which said that the station must guarantee “the concrete application of the par condicio…independent of the date of the dissolution of parliament and in all radio-television transmissions.” Granted, for the most part, the opposition is coming from Forza Italia, who says “There is a campaign of disinformation. The law goes into effect after the electoral assembly, not before.” The president for the Authority on Communication disagreed. He, in fact, said that there are principles that apply throughout the year and that he is in perfect agreement with President Ciampi.
Overwhelmingly, however, the parties and politicians, the intellectuals and the people are all in favor of retaining the ‘par condicio’ law, with its equal division of space rather than proportional division. I spoke with one Italian university student who said, “it is right that all parties have equal space in regard to ‘par condicio’ because it is only in this way that smaller parties can express their positions and voters can make informed considerations before voting.” Another Italian I spoke with had this to say: “Proportionality wouldn’t be right because once the leading party gains the largest proportion, they will be able to use that to reinforce their position. I understand the position of Berlusconi though, saying ‘we worked to establish ourselves, so we should be able to reap the benefits,’ but at the same time, other parties deserve to be represented fairly.”
The debate continues, and is likely to do so. Berlusconi has, in fact, agitated the issue with his speech earlier in the month in the Congress of the United States, bringing cries of unfairness and violation of ‘par condicio’ from the Margherita party and the Democrats of the Left, who are now asking for “the same space for the leader of The Union, Romano Prodi.” The director of the channel which aired the speech defended himself, saying “it is an action of an institutional character of the president of the Council [of Ministers] that the TV of any country should transmit in an analogous situation…” Beppe Giuletti of the Democrats of the Left has said that they are formally requesting that the Authority of Communications make a decision on whether such “spottone,” or blatant campaigning, is compatible with the laws and regulations of ‘par condicio’, as well as what times it intends to assign to them for “reparations.” Whatever the Authority decides on this matter, one thing is certain—they will be a busy committee in the coming weeks. I can only imagine that all of the politicians will strain their ingenuity to find every possible means push the envelope of the ‘par condicio’ law and get their face on TV for a few additional minutes. We’ll be watching.