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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Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Italy’s government was plunged into turmoil on Tuesday as foreign minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving his party to start a breakaway group.

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Di Maio said his decision to leave the Five Star Movement (M5S) – the party he once led – was due to its “ambiguity” over Italy’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

He accused the party’s current leader, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, of undermining the coalition government’s efforts to support Ukraine and weakening Italy’s position within the EU.

“Today’s is a difficult decision I never imagined I would have to take … but today I and lots of other colleagues and friends are leaving the Five Star Movement,” Di Maio told a press conference on Tuesday.

“We are leaving what tomorrow will no longer be the first political force in parliament.”

His announcement came after months of tensions within the party, which has lost most of the popular support that propelled it to power in 2018 and risks being wiped out in national elections due next year.

The split threatens to bring instability to Draghi’s multi-party government, formed in February 2021 after a political crisis toppled the previous coalition.

As many as 60 former Five Star lawmakers have already signed up to Di Maio’s new group, “Together for the Future”, media reports said.

Di Maio played a key role in the rise of the once anti-establishment M5S, but as Italy’s chief diplomat he has embraced Draghi’s more pro-European views.

READ ALSO: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy’s establishment

Despite Italy’s long-standing political and economic ties with Russia, Draghi’s government has taken a strongly pro-NATO stance, sending weapons and cash to help Ukraine while supporting EU sanctions against Russia.

Di Maio backed the premier’s strong support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, including sending weapons for Kyiv to defend itself.

In this he has clashed with the head of Five Star, former premier Giuseppe Conte, who argues that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution.

Di Maio attacked his former party without naming Conte, saying: “In these months, the main political force in parliament had the duty to support the diplomacy of the government and avoid ambiguity. But this was not the case,” he said.

Luigi Di Maio (R) applauds after Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) addresses the Italian Senate on June 21st, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

“In this historic moment, support of European and Atlanticist values cannot be a mistake,” he added.

The Five Star Movement, he said, had risked the stability of the government “just to try to regain a few percentage points, without even succeeding”.

But a majority of lawmakers – including from the Five Star Movement – backed Draghi’s approach in March and again in a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Draghi earlier on Tuesday made clear his course was set.

“Italy will continue to work with the European Union and with our G7 partners to support Ukraine, to seek peace, to overcome this crisis,” he told the Senate, with Di Maio at his side.

“This is the mandate the government has received from parliament, from you. This is the guide for our action.”

The Five Star Movement stormed to power in 2018 general elections after winning a third of the vote on an anti-establishment ticket, and stayed in office even after Draghi was parachuted in to lead Italy in February 2021.

But while it once threatened to upend the political order in Italy, defections, policy U-turns and dismal polling have left it struggling for relevance.

“Today ends the story of the Five Star Movement,” tweeted former premier Matteo Renzi, who brought down the last Conte government by withdrawing his support.