by a lutta continua Saturday, May. 31, 2003 at 5:37 PM

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy succeeds in eliminating a critic in the person of an Editor of a major daily newspaper. A journalist says, "Now we really are just one step away from a dictatorship."

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Editor 'sacked for irritating Berlusconi'

U.K. Independent

30 May 2003

The editor of Italy's most important daily paper was expected to resign last night, the apparent victim of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's relentless quest for control of the national news media.

A meeting last night of the board of RCS Media Group, the holding company that owns Corriere della Sera, was expected to lead to the resignation of the editor, Ferruccio De Bortoli, after the paper repeatedly irritated Mr Berlusconi.

Other Italian papers discussed his departure, and the appointment in his place of Stefano Folli, a political columnist sympathetic to Mr Berlusconi, as a foregone conclusion. Though dressed up as a resignation, it was being described baldly as a sacking. The headline in Il Manifesto, an independent communist daily, put it like this: "Even the Corriere is his [Berlusconi's]."

Corriere della Sera is the giant of Italian daily newspapers, with daily sales of more than 700,000. Founded in 1876, it became the mouthpiece of Lombardy's rising middle class.

Today, with its slightly fusty, congested design, it is well to the right of La Repubblica, the liberal Rome daily. It is also the Italian newspaper with the best network of correspondents at home and abroad. It was long owned by the Agnelli family, who also owned Fiat, and Umberto Agnelli, Fiat's chairman, is still a director of its holding company. Its centrality in Italy's national life is comparable to that long enjoyed by Fiat.

But despite its conservatism, it has kept its distance from the Prime Minister. Its front-page cartoonist, Giannelli, depicts him as a grinning dwarf in shiny bowler hat and built-up shoes, and it has covered and commented on the Prime Minister's court cases. It is that coverage that has riled Mr Berlusconi, as well as its "irreverent" editorials. Two of the Prime Minister's lawyers are suing Mr De Bortoli over one editorial, alleging defamation.

The last straw, it is said, was a column on 15 May, in which Giovanni Sartori commented on a speech in which the Prime Minister said: "It will not be permitted for anyone who has been a communist to come to power." Mr Santori wrote: "Mussolini used to say the same words. He [Berlusconi] has no reason to be afraid. But I have."

Bruno Perini, in Il Manifesto, said: "The confrontation between the newspaper and the Prime Minister [is] ever harsher ... leading to the article ... in which he compared Silvio Berlusconi to Mussolini." Mr Perini cited "continuous pressure from Berlusconi's men to get [the paper] under control and stop it publishing irritating articles on the court cases."

There is speculation that Mr De Bortoli's ouster came after Mr Berlusconi told Mr Agnelli of his unhappiness with the newspaper. Fiat is in desperate financial trouble and, if a planned rescue by General Motors goes sour, may require a bail-out from Italian public funds to stay afloat.

The paper's journalists published a long statement in yesterday's paper, following a crowded and emotional meeting. They emphasised their "full trust" in Mr De Bortoli and demanded that "pressure and intimidation" should cease.

Mr Berlusconi owns three private television channels and indirectly controls RAI, the state broadcaster. A daily, L'Unita, and a political weekly, Panorama, are also his. A journalist on Corriere della Sera, unwilling to be named, said of Mr De Bortoli's sacking: "Now we really are just one step away from a dictatorship."