Parliament votes down EU moves on press freedom

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Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi this week (21 October) avoided official condemnation by the European Parliament, highlighting divisions among MEPs over what some see as a purely national issue.

MEPs voting at their plenary session on Strasbourg on Wednesday narrowly rejected a resolution denouncing the lack of press freedom in Italy. 

Parliamentarians rejected a European Commission proposal for EU legislation to protect media pluralism in Europe by the narrowest of margins, with 338 votes against and 335 in favour amid 13 abstentions. 

The proposed European Parliament resolution on freedom of information in Italy, tabled by the centre-left and primarily seen as an attack on Berlusconi and his media empire, fell by just three votes. 

The motion would have seen the Parliament condemn political interference with the media and call for EU legislation to ban media monopolies in Europe. 

The European centre-right, represented by the European People’s Party (EPP), the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and European Freedom and Democracy (EFD) groups, successfully defeated the motion, which was backed by a centre-left bloc comprising the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), Liberals (ALDE), Greens and leftists (GUE/NGL). 

The EPP had argued that the European Parliament was not the appropriate forum to discuss national issues or make a case against the governments of individual EU countries. 

Rebel liberals halt left’s attack 

Almost 100% of MEPs voted along party lines, meaning decisions by Italian ALDE member Vincenzo Iovine to vote against the resolution and abstentions by Irish Fianna Fáil MEPs Liam Aylward, Brian Crowley and Pat ‘the Cope’ Gallagher (all ALDE) handed victory to the right. 

Indeed, the vote indicates how difficult it will be for the left to stop a united right, which emerged stronger from June’s European elections after the EPP’s emphatic victory, from dominating the new EU assembly. 

British Labour member Claude Moraes, S&D group spokesman on civil liberties, condemned the ALDE rebels for triggering the rejection of the resolution and was quick to hail the “remarkable unity and coherence” of his own group. 

“It is deeply sad to notice that three Irish ALDE members abstained and one Italian ALDE member voted against the compromise,” Moraes said, blaming “lack of cohesion in the ALDE group” for the defeat. 

Asked to explain the Irish members’ decision, a Fianna Fáil spokesman told the Irish Examiner that “we have a tradition of opposing anything that would interfere with national domestic issues”. 

The European centre-right, meanwhile, hailed its victory, with EPP group chair Joseph Daul saying the whole affair had exposed “the bad faith of certain political groups, who tried to hide behind the principle of freedom of information to attack their political opponents”. 

Publishers welcome result 

European newspaper publishers, for their part, said taking action at EU level would not have made sense and praised the Parliament for its “wise” decision. 

“What had started as a debate on a national issue too quickly turned to proposals for illogical solutions at the EU level,” the European Newspaper Publishers’ Association (ENPA) said in a statement, warning that EU legislation on media pluralism and concentration “could in fact decrease, not increase the level of media pluralism”. 

“The EU cannot regulate diversity just as it is impossible to regulate ethics and morals,” said ENPA President Valdo Lehari Jr. 

Meanwhile, media watchdog ‘Reporters Without Borders’ this week (20 October) published its 2009 report on press freedom, putting Italy 49th in a list of 173 countries worldwide. 

Reacting to the outcome of the vote, European People's Party (EPP) group chair Joseph Daul (France) said "the EPP group has won a battle […] to reaffirm that the European Parliament is [neither] the appropriate place to discuss national issues, nor to make a case against any government of a European Union member state". 

"The EPP stands for freedom and independence of information, in Europe and outside Europe. But this principle cannot be instrumentalised for the benefit of anyone," Daul added. 

French Socialist MEP Catherine Trautmann said the outcome of the vote had shown "the difficulties of overcoming, even on fundamental issues, the strict party-political divides in an EU assembly in which the right has emerges stronger from the last elections". 

Describing the result as "a black day for press freedom in Europe" and expressing their "bitter disappointment" with the outcome, German MEP Rebecca Harms, co-president of the Greens/European Free Alliance group, and Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini, co-author of the resolution, said "Silvio Berlusconi's control of both government and media in Italy is profoundly undemocratic". 

Regretting that the "call for an EU directive against concentration of media ownership has been silenced," the MEPs said that given that the EU demands a free and open press in countries that wish to join the Union, "to accept anything less from existing members is hypocrisy". 

"The fact that Berlusconi owns most commercial television stations and controls the state-owned RAI as prime minister, and owns magazines, newspapers and one of the biggest ad agencies in Europe, allows him to influence public opinion to too great an extent," said French leftist MEP Patrick Le Hyaric (GUE/NGL), quoted by the Irish Examiner. 

"The EU should establish a European body to monitor press freedom, set a limit to the amount of media controlled by one person or organisation and devise legislation to prevent attacks on a free media," Le Hyaric said. 

"It's a real disgrace that once again in the European Parliament, the Democratic Party and the IDV [Italy of Values] have tried to diss our country," Daniele Capezzone, spokesman for the ruling People of Liberty party, told the Financial Times. 

"Who will compensate Italy and Italians for the umpteenth harm that bad politics has tried to procure?" Capezzone asked. 

Paolo Bonaiuti, a spokesman for the Italian government, is quoted by the FT as saying: "The left turned to the EU for its own battle but has come back defeated. In Italy there is no limitation to the freedom of the press." 

Welcoming the outcome of the vote, Valdo Lehari Jr., president of the European Newspaper Publishers' Association (ENPA), said "a majority of parliamentarians […] finally returned to reason during the politically-driven discussion by realising that this is a purely national competence". 

"The votes and accompanying discussions in the Parliament […] have highlighted a wide variety of concerns about freedom of information in Europe," said ENPA Executive Director Valtteri Niiranen

"If the European Parliament wishes to openly and reasonably discuss all the different options for supporting press freedom with stakeholders - for example by deregulating – we will be there at the front of the queue ready to contribute to this debate," Niiranen added. 

In April 2004, the European Parliament adopted a report attacking Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's dominance of the Italian media landscape. 

The Berlusconi family owns Mediaset, the country's largest commercial broadcaster. The Italian premier also owns a number of news magazines, while his advertising business is the country's biggest in terms of TV commercials. 

Meanwhile, as prime minister, Berlusconi is able to exert influence on RAI, Italy's state broadcaster. 

Together, RAI and Mediaset attract around 90% of Italy’s television audience. 

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