Crushing Satire: Syria-style vs. Berlusconi-style

Satire has always been an easy target of political powers due to its uncanny ability to pierce through the veils of propaganda and biased information.

The recent brutal attack on the popular Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat is just the latest (but certainly not the last) assault on satire and freedom of expression in general.

In Ali Ferzat’s case we can see the physical harm that has been done to the cartoonist, but often times we are not aware of other non-physical attempts to suppress freedom of expression.

Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a champion in the suppression of satire, which he has openly criticized in the past and whose control over Italian media has effectively marginalized Italian satire’s role for years.

On April 18, 2002, the recently elected Berlusconi said during a press conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, that TV journalists Enzo Biagi and Michele Santoro, as well as TV satirist Daniele Luttazzi, had used their shows on public TV in “criminal ways.” Luttazzi was criticized for inviting on his show “Satyricon” journalist Marco Travaglio, who talked about the alleged ties between Berlusconi and the Sicilian Mafia.

Berlusconi also added “the new RAI board should not allow certain episodes to repeat themselves.”

Soon after, the three men were stripped of their respective shows, despite having good ratings. Years later, Luttazzi won a lawsuit that Mediaset had brought forth, but in his own words, the victory came “too late.”

That same year, comic actor Corrado Guzzanti started an evening satirical TV show on lesser-viewed RAITRE. The show “Il Caso Scafroglia” was a hit. In perfect Colbert-esque fashion, Guzzanti made fun of the ruling government.

The show was not confirmed for the following year, despite — once again — exceptional ratings.

Another member of the Guzzanti family had a far worse experience. Corrado’s sister Sabina, a comic actor known for her impersonations of Berlusconi, was handed a TV show in November 2003. The show, “RAIOT”, was to be aired on Sundays at 11:30 p.m. on RAITRE. In other words, it was dumped in the dark corners of TV schedules.

The show only lasted one episode. The ratings exceeded anyone’s imagination (18% total viewers), but the open attacks of Guzzanti on Berlusconi’s government and on his media company Mediaset scared the board members of RAI, who decided to shut it down.

Another way to censor satire against Berlusconi is to make sure there are no financial supporters for such initiatives.

It is what happened at the beginning of 2011 to director Marco Bellocchio, who had to abandon a satirical movie-project on Berlusconi’s sex life because ten potential backers withdrew from the project out of fear they would be victims of retaliation.

These are only a few examples of how dangerous it is for a political power to control a country’s media landscape. When this situation occurs, as it has occurred in Italy for the past 17 years, it is not necessary to physically harm satirists, comedians and cartoonists. All that is needed is an order to shut their activity down.

That is a principle of fascism.

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