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Italian media bill draws protest

ROME, Italy (Reuters) --Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi came under pressure on Wednesday to reject a media law that critics say is a gift for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

With opposition groups promising protests in piazzas across the country, Ciampi has 30 days to decide whether or not to rubber-stamp the law, which was approved by Berlusconi's supporters in parliament on Tuesday.

It eases limits on media ownership, expands the advertising market and prepares the way for the part-privatisation of state broadcaster RAI.

The government says the package breathes fresh life into Italy's rigid media market, allowing the largely protected industry to deal with foreign competition and setting a timeframe for the roll-out of digital terrestrial television.

Opponents say it is tailor-made for the Berlusconi family holding company Fininvest, which controls Italy's largest media empire, and enables it to extend is considerable reach.

Ciampi, Italy's supreme political arbiter, has recently made cryptic comments about the importance of media pluralism and centre-left parties hope this is a signal that he is ready to send the law back to parliament for further work.

"The president is a man of sufficient authority, wisdom and fairness to know on his own what he should do,'' opposition leader Piero Fassino told reporters on Wednesday.

"The unconstitutional aspects are evident.''

However, analysts said they expected Ciampi would sign the law and Italy's media stocks outpaced their European peers on Wednesday in anticipation.

Centre-right politicians say they see no reason for the president to reject the legislation -- a move that would poison Italy's already foetid political waters.

"There will be many beneficiaries of this law, not just one or two. To think otherwise is to display an unjust, partial vision that is not acceptable,'' said Communications Minister Maurizio Gasparri, who promoted the legislation.

Expanding the market
One of the law's more disputed provisions allows Fininvest's television arm Mediaset (MS.MI) to buy into radio and newspapers from 2009. The company says the new law will give it access to extra revenues of 750 million euros ($900 million).

The law also reverses an earlier court ruling that one of Berlusconi's three private Mediaset television channels should broadcast on a much less lucrative satellite link.

"If freedom of information is the basis for a democracy, then we need to say, without mincing our words, that this attacks the democratic lifeblood of our country,'' left-leaning daily La Repubblica wrote.

Berlusconi, through his political office and his business interests, has direct and indirect influence over an estimated 95 percent of Italian television.

He came to power promising to resolve his conflict of interest, but a bill on this languishes in parliament.

If Ciampi does approve the law, RAI's president Lucia Annunziata has said she will immediately resign in protest, arguing that the planned RAI sell-off is a ``fake'' as it only allows shareholders to take a one percent stake in the firm.

The European Commission said on Wednesday it had no plans at the moment to open an investigation into the law but Italian opposition groups are holding afternoon demonstrations across the country, including one outside the Pantheon in central Rome.


Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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