The business empire of Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi has amassed a €1 billion ($1.2bn; £0.7bn) warchest with which to tighten its grip on the country's media market.

The prime minister's Mediaset unit is considering domestic acquisitions as soon as a controversial media ownership law is approved in the new year. The company's chairman Fedele Confalonieri announced this week that it has between €750 million and €1bn to spend on takeovers until 2009.

Mediaset -- controlled by Berlusconi's Fininvest holding company -- is already the dominant force in Italian commercial television and has interests in print media. Yet a new law will allow it and publishing house Mondadori (another part of Fininvest) to expand further.

This law, which will also reverse court rulings requiring Mediaset to dispose of assets, has now been approved by the Senate, having passed parliament's lower house in October [WAMN: 03-Oct-03]. All that is now required is the signature of president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, due by January 3 -- though some in the Italian media have suggested he will refuse to approve it.

Berlusconi's critics claim his dual roles as the country's prime minister and leading media baron already give him too much influence -- Mediaset and state-owned broadcaster RAI between them control 90% of Italy's national television market. Berlusconi, however, has dismissed accusations of a conflict of interest, insisting he has delegated control of his media assets to family members and aides.

Mediaset and Mondadori claim not to have any purchases lined up, though they are interested in expanding their radio interests.

Data sourced from: Media Week (UK); additional content by WARC staff