EXPLAINED: What is Italy’s public TV ‘censorship’ row all about?

Italy's state broadcaster Rai has been on the defensive after accusations of censorship and homophobia from a popular tattooed rapper made front-page news on Monday. 

EXPLAINED: What is Italy's public TV 'censorship' row all about?
Italian rapper Fedez, pictured with his wife, fashion blogger Chiara Ferragni, is at the centre of a row about censorship and party politics at Rai. Photo: Andreas SOLARO/AFP

The scandal, in which Rai managers appeared to try to dissuade rapper Fedez from criticising far-right politicians during a May Day concert, has reignited longstanding questions about neutrality and political pressure at Rai.

Politicians and media groups have stepped up calls for reform of the top management of the publicly-funded broadcaster, which is named by government ministers.

Rai’s current president, Eurosceptic journalist Marcello Foa, was picked for the top job by the League.

READ ALSO: Salvini backs conspiracy theorist as head of Italian state broadcaster

“For years we have been denouncing a ‘system’ at Rai: it’s the party-ocracy, which with alternating parties occupies the public service,” the USIG union of Rai journalists said.

“Let Rai be free, let ideas, information and art be free.”

Fedez, who has over 12 million followers on Instagram and is married to star blogger Chiara Ferragni, used his appearance at a televised May 1 concert to denounce Italy’s far-right League and its blocking of an anti-discrimination bill in parliament.

Before reciting a litany of anti-gay public comments by members of the League – including by one who said that “If I had a gay son, I would burn him in the oven” – Fedez told fans that Rai had attempted to silence him ahead of the concert.

When Rai denied it, Fedez published a recording of a phone conversation in which the concert producer said Fedez must “adapt to a system” that precluded him from naming names.

In the same call, the vice director of the Rai3 channel said she considered the context “inappropriate” for the rapper’s planned comments.

Rai later said the video had been edited to remove statements by the broadcaster’s executive saying that Rai was not censoring him.

However, it has since received about 2.2 million views and prompted some politicians, including former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, to voice support for Fedez.

The story was front-page news in Italy on Monday, with La Repubblica splashing “Fedez cyclone over Rai” on its front page.

The president of the lower house of parliament, Roberto Fico, called for Rai to put “competence and independence at the forefront”.

Independence at the public broadcaster is a long-running controversy in Italy.

The media landscape was upended by former premier and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, whose Mediaset conglomerate helped cement his grip on power.

READ ALSO: Six key things to know about press freedom in Italy

A 2015 reform under former premier Matteo Renzi, supposed to free Rai from political influence, merely transferred the power to nominate top managers from parliament to the cabinet.

Under new prime minister Mario Draghi, media watchers expect a shakeup to occur in July.

That could include the exit of CEO Fabrizio Salini, who has struggled to reverse declining advertising revenues and rising debt.

Rai is the most-watched broadcaster in Italy, with about 36 percent of viewership.

But its position depends on ageing viewers, and is challenged by pay-TV platforms, such as Sky Italia, as well as No. 2 competitor Mediaset.

Rai president Marcello Foa, a supporter of Vladimir Putin who has posted conspiracy theories online, was the choice of League head Matteo Salvini.

He was appointed in 2018, when the party shared power with the populist Five Star Movement.

Although a parliamentary commission at first rejected Foa’s appointment, the ruling coalition pushed it through against the wishes of the then opposition Democratic Party – who are now in government.   

READ ALSO:Italian TV show investigated after outrage over ‘sexy shopping’ tutorial 

Rai’s code of ethics published on its website lists as priorities: “freedom, completeness, transparency, objectivity, impartiality, pluralism and fairness of information.”

The broadcaster’s budget comes from advertising and a license fee paid byItalian households.

The latest outcry comes just days after the broadcaster said it would no longer allow “blackface” on its channels.

The practice of white performers painting their faces to portray black characters, long banned in many European countries, occurred recently on one of Rai’s weekly variety shows.

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Italy’s government to continue sending weapons to Ukraine in 2023

Italy's new government issued a decree on Thursday to continue sending weapons to Ukraine through 2023, continuing the previous administration's policy of support to Kyiv.

Italy's government to continue sending weapons to Ukraine in 2023

The decree extends to December 31, 2023 an existing authorisation for “the transfer of military means, materials and equipment to the government authorities of Ukraine,” according to a government statement.

Since taking office in October, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has repeatedly voiced her support for Kyiv while underlying the importance of the Atlantic alliance.

In her first speech to parliament, the leader of the Brothers of Italy party pledged to “continue to be a reliable partner of NATO in supporting Ukraine.”

Her predecessor Mario Draghi was a staunch supporter of Kyiv, but the issue of sending arms to Ukraine split the biggest party in parliament during his coalition government, the Five Star Movement.

That friction led to the early elections that brought Meloni to power.

Parliament now has 60 days to vote the decree into law.

READ ALSO: Outcry in Italy after Berlusconi defends Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

Despite Meloni’s efforts to reassure her Western allies of Italy’s support for the EU’s and NATO’s Ukraine strategy, including sanctions on Russia, the close ties to Russia of her two coalition partners have come under scrutiny.

Both Matteo Salvini of the League party and former premier Silvio Berlusconi, who leads Forza Italia, have long enjoyed warm relations with Russia.

In October, an audio tape of Berlusconi was leaked to the media in which the former premier described how he had received a birthday present of vodka from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the tape, he also expressed concerns about sending weapons and cash to Kyiv and appeared to blame the war on Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Berlusconi later issued a statement saying his personal position on Ukraine “does not deviate” from that of Italy and the EU.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Salvini, too, has come under fire for his relations with Moscow, including a report that he dined with Russia’s ambassador to Rome just days after that country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Salvini, who has criticised EU sanctions as ineffective, has long admired Putin, even wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the Russian leader’s face.