Italian tycoon and prime minister Silvio Berlusconi may yet have to loosen his grip on the country's media market after the head of state blocked controversial communications legislation.
President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi refused to sign a bill that could have allowed Berlusconi to keep his existing terrestrial television assets and even expand his media empire further. Ciampi has sent the legislation back to parliament to be discussed again.
Despite hostility from the centre-left opposition and media bodies around the world, Italy's conservative government succeeded in getting the bill through both houses of parliament, leaving Ciampi -- who has never before refused to sign a bill except on budgetary grounds -- as the only hurdle left in its path.
Critics of the bill claim it allows Berlusconi to maintain his dominance of Italian TV through his dual roles as premier and business tycoon. As prime minister, he controls state broadcaster RAI; as media mogul, he controls commercial broadcast group Mediaset -- the two between them account for 90% of the national television market. The legislation would also allow greater cross-media ownership.
In a five-page letter to both houses, the president argued that the bill would in practice overturn the constitutional court's decision to force Berlusconi to dispose of one of his terrestrial channels. He added that the measure could let media groups control a greater share of the ad market -- a development that is "not in line" with court decisions and could result in "the creation of a dominant position".
Berlusconi's critics welcomed the news. "Sending the bill back to parliament … justifies fifteen months of battle against an unconstitutional law which is the child of a conflict of interest," declared Paolo Gentiloni from the opposition Margherita party.
If the bill ultimately fails, Berlusconi would have to shift one of his free-to-air terrestrial TV stations to satellite. However, the prime minister seemed unconcerned at Ciampi's decision. "If the changes [proposed by the president] were intelligent, parliament would take that into account," he commented.
Parliament is not obliged to pay heed to Ciampi's suggestions. If it votes through the legislation as it stands for a second time, the president would have no choice but to sign it.
Data sourced from: MediaGuardian.co.uk; additional content by WARC staff