Wednesday, March 31, 2010

We Share More With Italy Than Bad Driving

Came across this opinion piece about Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's control over the Italian media on George Soros-funded Open Society Institute blog and thought it was worth sharing for a couple of reasons.

Berlusconi: inspiration for MSR?

For one, it is an eye-opener about how similar Italian politics is to that of a far more maligned country such as Pakistan. Secondly, it provides ample food for thought about the role of the media in society, a topic that we on this blog have been consistently obsessed with. When we speak about a "free and unfettered" media, how do we reconcile that with the sometimes unchecked power that accrues to the media and, indeed, the people behind it and who own it who have their own political and financial agendas. And finally, rather than reading it as a (usual story of a) politician / leader trying to control the media - how we normally view these things in Pakistan - let's try and read it as many Pakistani politicians have privately and publicly proclaimed they see things: as the media trying to control politics. Imagine for a moment, media tycoon Mir Shakilur Rehman in Berlusconi's place... is the PPP on to something there when its leaders claim Geo wants to be the kingmaker?

In any case, without further ado, here is the blog entry:

Berlusconi’s Chilling Effect on Italian Media
March 30, 2010 | by Darian Pavli
Democracy is about more than casting ballots. When Italians went to the polls this week, what information and ideas shaped their votes?
For the past thirty years, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s family has controlled Italy’s top three national TV channels, known as the Mediaset empire. As head of government, Berlusconi has also maintained a tight grip on the “public service” national broadcaster, Radiotelevisione Italiana (Rai). Together, Mediaset and Rai control roughly 90 percent of national audience and advertising revenue shares.
To get a rough idea of the decline since Berlusconi entered politics in the early 1990s, imagine the media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corporation already owns one of the UK’s top networks, Sky Television, also buying controlling shares in ITN and Channel 4, finding a way to become Britain’s Prime Minister, and then systematically dismantling the independence of the BBC. That’s basically what has happened in Italy.
This has made broadcast media coverage increasingly partisan. Berlusconi and his government have repeatedly attempted to muzzle critical Italian media and avoid scrutiny. Now, the only significant criticism of the government comes from a handful of print outlets and a few isolated voices within Rai.
Let’s just look at this past year:
In June 2009, Berlusconi called publicly on businesses not to advertise in newspapers critical of his handling of the economy, singling out his old nemesis, the left-leaning La Repubblica. In the meantime, his government channeled roughly 90 percent of its own annual advertising to the Mediaset networks.
In August 2009, he sued La Repubblica for libel over its publication of ten questions to Berlusconi about his allegedly improper relationship with a minor; he also threatened to sue French and Spanish media over similar stories.
The government proposed and pushed through the lower house a bill that would criminalize publishing transcripts of wiretapped conversations leaked by law enforcement agencies. Italian journalists criticized the government’s proposal as overbroad and self-interested, and the proposal was sidelined temporarily. However, it was reactivated in the upper house earlier this month, when allegations emerged that prosecutors had stumbled upon conversations between Berlusconi, a member of the broadcast regulator overseeing Rai (Agcom), and a top Rai director. Berlusconi allegedly complained about critical voices within Rai and put pressure on the directors to silence dissent. Past disclosures leaked to the media have implicated Berlusconi and his allies in various corruption affairs.
In late 2009, the government introduced another bill that would require all websites carrying any video content, such as YouTube or any typical news site, to be licensed by the government and treated as regular broadcasters. No other Western democracy has attempted to regulate websites in this way. The proposal was only dropped after a barrage of international and domestic criticism.
In July 2009, the Italian Parliament approved a government proposal to re-introduce the criminal offense of insulting public officials, which had been repealed in 1999 after years of deliberation.
Another initiative is promoting a constitutional amendment that would prohibit, in drastic terms, “printed publications, shows and other displays … that violate human dignity or the right to privacy.” The intent seems to be to provide a constitutional basis for prior restraint of media stories.
In a recent submission to the European Court of Human Rights, the Open Society Justice Initiative argued that consolidated ownership and control of broadcasting in Italy violates the right to pluralistic information guaranteed to all Italians by the continent’s bill of rights.
To top it off, ahead of this week’s municipal elections, a parliamentary committee controlled by the government majority imposed content restrictions that made it impossible for Rai’s political talk shows and investigative programs to maintain their regular formats during the campaign. This was followed by a decision of the Rai board that outright suspended an array of talk shows, including those most critical of the government.
The blatant and unprecedented conflict of interest between Berlusconi’s media holdings and his government position has remained unresolved since the early 1990s. Italy’s highest tribunal, the Constitutional Court, has ruled multiple times that such media concentration is illegal. Yet its decisions have not been enforced. For example, a decree from an earlier Berlusconi cabinet allowed Mediaset to hold on to all three of its channels, for nearly a decade, in open defiance of a Constitutional Court order.
At the continental level, the European Court of Justice has found Italy in violation of EU broadcast competition laws. This year, the Council of Europe requested, for the second time since 2004, an expert opinion on Italy’s compliance with European media freedom and pluralism principles. In January, the European Parliament came just three votes short of passing a measure criticizing the consolidated control of Italian media.
It is time for the democratic world to denounce the limitations on media freedom in Italy even more forcefully. This situation is a serious embarrassment to the idea of democratic pluralism, and a terrible model for emerging democracies around the globe.

Would love to hear some considered feedback on this.


karachikhatmal said...

wouldn't mr taseer be the more likely analogy, since he is just as much of a sleaze?

also which group do you guys work for? apologies if this has been dealt with previously, but i'm curious

Umair J said...

Brilliant. Our establishment has had a long history of courting journalists and media houses, asking them to work on their payroll. Which is why we hear conspiracy theories like how Hamid Mir is actually an ISI sponsored goon and how Kamran Khan has close links with the US state department. More than that i think its easier for the government (if we artificially separate the interests of print capitalists and the state) to kill off newspapers they dont like simply by pulling the plug on government advertising revenue. There have been many progressive newspapers like Masaawat etc that have suffered this fate because they eventually became financially unsustainable and were constantly targeted by the establishment.

Secondly, its easier for the government to align with right-wing conservative elements in the print media i.e. simply promoting those newspapers and journalists that already have a certain ideological affiliation with the state itself rather than propping up their own media elements. In fact i think this is a much better way of looking at the Pakistani case wherein the owners of media houses do not have an overt political role in society but have been seen promoting the interests of certain parties and other political 'elements'. At a larger level all this shows is that even an insulated and autonomous state-system like Pakistan has to reach out towards the important nodes of information dispensation for it to maintain a form of hegemony over the popular discourse.

XYZ said...

@karachikhatmal: You can put whichever media tycoon's name there that you want - Salman Taseer, Sultan Lakhani, Haroon-Saigols et al. I wasn't actually comparing MSR with Berlusconi in terms of his personal characteristics. I chose MSR simply because his is the biggest media empire in Pakistan and the current government (as well as the previous government) actually did/do believe that he is trying to dictate terms to it. In my opinion, Taseer or the others are nowhere near the level of media control that MSR enjoys.

With respect to who we work for, let's just say that between us we've worked for / work for almost all the major media houses in Pakistan.

@Umair J: I'll need some time to digest what you wrote and to respond. But just wanted to point out that Musawat, while a good paper in some respects, was never an independent newspaper; it was always a party paper tasked with promoting the party's point of view. It was the PPP's official paper and its decline came about obviously during Zia's regime.

karachikhatmal said...


fair point - my comment was based more on the sleaze factor, rather than the more insightful reasons pointed out by you. and didn't want to pry about your employers, was just wondering if any of you had been my colleagues at DawnNews. :)

temporal said...

stimulating piece:)

manufacturing consent works in many ways...consider the following in addition to the example you quoted:

* one can be an insider without media connections (Harper in Canada imposing his neoconzix agenda through, legislative manipulations, budgeting allocations and sifting and stifling of priorities)

* one can be an outsider and influence public policy decisions...tea-party financiers and supporters in the US...i forget the name of that billionaire who is reputedly financing the tea-baggers ... and to this list you can also add Murdoch with his media empire manufacturing opinions...MSR comes under this...but why forget our k(h)akistocrats?... they are adept in manufacturing consent through media implants too...

bottom line is both the billionaires and the politicians indulge in ways to enhance and perpetuate their power

Umair J said...

@XYZ: basically my point was that when we see certain media houses posing a particular view that seems to be against the government or is in effect dictating policy, we can logically conclude that they do so because of two reasons

1) They are on the payroll or in close collaboration with certain political elements who want to influence public policy through means outside the parliamentary/electoral process (i.e. the army/ISI/Bureaucracy/Right-wing elements vs the PPP....Hamid Mir case in point)

2) OR we can also look at media houses as simply another big-business enterprise...which have the same ideological baggage that comes with controlling large amounts of capital. So its possible that MSR is no different than any Industrialist when it comes to ideological our country the industrial elite has been more prone to siding with right-wing causes like the PML or the the end of the day all big business gravitates towards the right-wing/anti-PPP position and i dont see why Geo or any other media house should be any different.

Anonymous said...

XYZ - What media house Haroon-Saigol is heading?

Faisal said...

no new posts?