Silencing the critics - Italy’s Berlusconi sues the competition

Italian Prime Minister and media mogul, Silvio Berlusconi, is suing left-leaning newspaper, La Repubblica, along with papers in Britain and France, for defamation related to a string of sex scandals he has been embroiled in since April.

The 72-year-old prime minister, whose media empire includes television channels, a magazine, newspapers, a publishing house and the country’s leading advertising and publicity agency, has faced increased press scrutiny of his seemingly sleazy private life starting this spring when it emerged that he had attended the 18th birthday party of a model in Naples, gifting her with an $8,500 diamond necklace. (She calls him “Daddy.” He denies that anything “spicy” happened between them.) His wife subsequently filed for divorce and two months ago, it emerged that escort girls were invited to parties at his official residences in Sardinia and Rome and that one high class prostitute was even paid to spend the night with him.

Every day since mid-May, La Repubblica has published a list of ten questions for Berlusconi asking him to reply to the controversy - which he has refused to answer.

Berlusconi’s lawyer argues that the questions are defamatory because they imply his guilt. Today, his family-owned newspaper, the right-wing Il Giornale, published demands for La Repubblica to denounce their coverage.

La Repubblica’s editor, Ezio Mauro, said: ‘This is the first time in the memory of a free country that a newspaper has been taken to court for simply asking questions.’

The Guardian reported that La Repubblica’s “10 Questions” were already getting under Berlusconi’s skin back in May. For a media titan who controls nearly half of all Italian television channels, Berlusconi has gotten pretty tweaked out over the scrutiny of one daily newspaper. After, all, sex scandals and the private lives of politicians don’t usually raise eyebrows in Italy. But maybe Berlusconi should be worried. Some say there’s a backlash coming.

In the New York Times yesterday, Chiara Volpato, a professor of social psychology at the University of Milan, had an op-ed titled, “Italian Women Rise Up” illustrated with a drawing of a woman’s groping hand reaching up out of a plate of spaghetti — a new dish perhaps? Her call-to-dissent against Berlusconi’s sexist behavior declared, “Today there are two Italys: one Italy has soaked up Mr. Berlusconi’s ideology either out of self-interest or an inability to resist his enormous powers of persuasion; the other is fighting back.”

Berlusconi’s wife, Veronica Lario, who filed for divorce in April after the underage model birthday incident, recently declared in her new book, “Veronica’s Way” that he has made himself “ridiculous before the world.”

Meanwhile, a good deal of press attention has been given to Italian state television’s ban of the trailer for “Videocracy,” a film that questions the conflict of interest implicit in the billionaire prime minister’s control of a vast media empire. The trailer has been rejected because the juxtaposition of images of Berlusconi and a montage of scantily clad women who have appeared on his Mediaset airwaves over the years are “offensive to the honor and personal reputation of the prime minister,” and amount to “an unequivocal political message of criticism of the government,” according to the state broadcaster, RAI.

Mediaset has also refused to air the promo for film, which premieres next week at the Venice Film Festival. But that’s what the Internet is for. And Berlusconi doesn’t own that yet. Here’s the trailer.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.