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Italy's Media Ruler

It's paradoxical that RAI gives information contrary to what people want. There is no country in the world with a democratic government that allows a public service antithetical to that government.

- Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, June 7, 1994

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IF an independent and free press is a test of democratic health, it is time to take a closer look at Italy. The Italian elections in April brought media magnate Silvio Berlusconi to power, along with a coalition government that includes a neofascist party.

Democratic leaders should not even appear to have a controlling or coercive lever. A proper response for Mr. Berlusconi would be to distance himself from his media empire. And if he didn't, one would expect that the United States would have something to say about it.

Neither has happened - even though President Clinton had an opportunity in Rome last week.

The situation is extraordinary. Italy has only two sources of broadcast news: state TV and radio (RAI), and the three private TV networks run by Fininvest, which Berlusconi owns. When he was elected, the new prime minister became the head of essentially all Italian media.

Berlusconi has not stepped down as owner of Fininvest, made any convincing statements about editorial independence, or created a blind trust for his holdings. Moreover, Berlusconi owns not only the sole private media empire in Italy, but also the agencies that sell ads to his media group. Nowhere else in Europe would such a blatant - and dangerous - conflict of interest be tolerated.

Nor has the independence of state TV been affirmed. Just the opposite: Berlusconi has seized tighter control of RAI. Last month Interior Minister Roberto Maroni called members of the Italian Parliament asking them in the strongest terms to vote for Marco Taradash, a Berlusconi colleague, to head the RAI parliamentary oversight commission. Part of Mr. Taradash's avowed changes to RAI are to increase licensing fees and cut back on commercial viability, which critics say will slowly kill off these media.

It is hoped the very crassness of these efforts will inspire measures to change them. Reformer Mario Signi is leading an effort to reduce the number of private networks a single politician can own. He deserves support.

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The US, at the least, should question fascism in Europe, and media control. Sadly, however, by his inaction and neutrality Mr. Clinton has so far implied that these are not issues.

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