Berlusconi Never Wanted an Open Market System for Italy’s Media

By now, you’d think Francesco Di Stefano would be well known among Italians. Unfortunately, he’s not.

After 11 years of legal battles and millions of euros spent, Di Stefano can finally see his dream come true: He will be able to open a national TV channel in the Berlusconi-dominated media landscape of Italy.

Di Stefano’s story, which has never made the headlines, explains all too well why Berlusconi can still today hold such a vast media empire and be prime minister, without anyone seriously challenging his blatant conflict of interests.

In mid-1999, Di Stefano won a public contract from the Italian Ministry of Communications to establish a national TV channel that would reach at least 80 percent of Italian households. But there was a problem: The frequency his TV, Europa 7, was supposed to get was already occupied by Rete 4, one of Silvio Berlusconi’s three private TV channels. (The other two being Canale 5 and Italia 1)

Francesco Di Stefano


Although Rete 4’s occupancy had been ruled unlawful based on a 1997 anti-concentration law, the Ministry of Communications did little more than shrug its shoulders, acknowledging that it was physically impossible for Europa 7 to get a frequency.

Di Stefano, who at the time spent little over $8 million to get the frequency, wasn’t going to give up that easily.

So he went to court. More precisely, he went to multiple courts.

In November 2002, Italy’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, said Rete 4’s presence on a national frequency was unconstitutional and had to be removed by December 31, 2003.

Guess who was head of government back then… Berlusconi.

So the government decided, on Dec. 24, 2003, to adopt emergency legislation and ask AGCOM, the country’s broadcasting regulatory authority, to pronounce itself.

In the meantime, Berlusconi’s Minister of Communications at the time, Maurizio Gasparri, was hard at work writing up a law that would specifically protect Rete 4 and all of Berlusconi’s channels until Italy’s broadcasting system completed its transition to digital frequencies.

That law was approved on April 29, 2004, leaving Europa 7 and Di Stefano with nothing… again.

In 2005 the case was taken to the European Court of Justice. It took almost three years (January 2008) to declare Europa 7’s exclusion from national frequencies a violation of EU law.

Nothing else was done until December 2008, when the government (once again presided by Berlusconi) decided to give Europa 7 a public television (RAI) frequency starting June 30, 2009.

Di Stefano couldn’t accept the additional delay. The frequency offered, he also argued, did not guarantee that 80 percent coverage he had signed up for almost 10 years earlier.

At this point, the Italian business man was so desperate he even asked for help from the European Court for Human Rights. George Soros’ Open Society Justice Initiative picked up the cause, too.

The longest legal marathon in TV history finally came to a conclusion on April 8, when Di Stefano and the current Berlusconi government reached an agreement handing over to Europa 7 its long-awaited frequency.

The fact that the Berlusconi government has agreed to do this shouldn’t fool anyone in believing Berlusconi actually values the capitalist principles of the open market.

Having a frequency today is so much different from having it in 1999.

Today, Italian households receive hundreds of channels through digital frequencies, which have been enforced two years ago, making analog signal obsolete once and for all. Back in 1999, analog was all there was, and that reduced frequencies to a few dozen, half of which were either state-owned or Berlusconi-owned.

Not to mention the huge advertisement revenues that Berlusconi’s Finivest group has made throughout these years, being the lone competitor against government-owned RAI.

So, in the end, it’s a bittersweet victory for Di Stefano, for the rule of law and for Italian democracy in general.

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