The Italian government this week issued an emergency decree to protect a TV channel owned by prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The measure prevents Rete 4, part of Berlusconi's media empire, having to comply with a court ruling that would force it from terrestrial television onto satellite by the end of the year.

By protecting a private TV station owned by the premier, the government will face fresh accusations of using state power in the interests of Berlusconi's business assets. The prime minister tried to defuse such criticism by offering to leave the Cabinet meeting when the decree was discussed.

Berlusconi dominates the Italian media landscape: as premier, he indirectly controls state broadcaster RAI; as business baron, he ultimately controls commercial TV giant Mediaset, parent of Rete 4 and two other national channels. In total, these interests account for 90% of the country's television market.

In light of the prime minister's stranglehold on Italian TV, the country's highest court ruled that Rete 4 had to be transferred to satellite by the end of 2003, arguing that no company could broadcast more than 20% of national television programming. Mediaset claims complying with the order would cost the channel €250 million (€311m; £176m) a year in ad revenues and could lead to the channel's closure.

Following the court ruling, the government introduced media ownership legislation that would have preserved the status quo -- and, claim the government's critics, allow Berlusconi to tighten his stranglehold. This bill passed both houses of parliament, but was dramatically blocked earlier this month when president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi refused to sign it [WAMN: 17-Dec-03].

The decree protects Rete 4 into the new year while parliament reconsiders the bill, which will become law regardless of Ciampi if both houses approve it for a second time.

The emergency measure also allows state channel RAI 3 to continue broadcasting ads. Previously a court ruled that it had to run without commercials as RAI was exceeding an ad revenue limit.

Data sourced from: Washington Post; additional content by WARC staff