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Much of the European media continues to follow the sex saga surrounding Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Much of the European media is following that story, but not all of it. Berlusconi's control of television networks means many Italians are far less informed about their prime minister's scandals than their European neighbors. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.
(Soundbite of applause)
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: At a press conference in Rome last week, many journalists warmly welcomed Berlusconi. And with a flourish he announced a new tourism campaign promoting Italy as the world's number one cultural destination.
Prime Minister SILVIO BERLUSCONI (Italy): (Through translator) Our Italian identity and culture are based on a civilization that began several millennia ago and never underwent a period of decadence.
POGGIOLI: Many European analysts don't agree. They say it's precisely Berlusconi who has led contemporary Italy into a state of decay, comparing his behavior to that of the Roman Emperor Nero.
Over the years, Berlusconi has dodged allegations of mafia links, illicit business practices and bribing judges. Over the last several months, photos and firsthand accounts have revealed wild sex parties at Berlusconi's residences and offers of political appointments in exchange for sex. There followed, audiotapes, in which Berlusconi allegedly discusses graphic sex while in bed with a prostitute.
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
Prime Minister BERLUSCONI: (Foreign language spoken)
POGGIOLI: Berlusconi has not denied it's his voice on the tape, and just quipped, I'm no saint.
Ms. MARGHERITA BONIVER (Lawmaker): He has never lied. He has always more or less admitted, openly - very openly - that he very much likes women.
POGGIOLI: Margherita Boniver is a lawmaker in Berlusconi's party.
Ms. BONIVER: And I think this is something Italians understand — they possibly not condone it, but they understand.
POGGIOLI: But critics of the prime minister say it remains unclear exactly what Italians know. Through direct ownership and through political influence, Berlusconi controls about 80 to 90 percent of Italian TV, networks that have provided little or no coverage of the scandals.
The left-leaning daily, La Repubblica, is one of the few mediums extensively covering the Berlusconi sex saga. Every day for the last three months, La Repubblica has been publishing 10 questions for Berlusconi, but he refuses to answer and also reneged on his pledge to explain his behavior before Parliament.
Berlusconi claims La Repubblica is spearheading a conspiracy against him and has called on business leaders to refrain from placing ads in media that are critical of him.
Editor, Ezio Mauro, has vowed to continue publishing the questions until the prime minister deigns to answer them. Mauro says the problem is most Italians get their news only from TV.
Mr. EZIO MAURO (Editor, La Repubblica): (Through translator) This is the Italian news paradox: The TV audience hears Berlusconi's denials but never hears the substance of what he is denying. This is his basic conflict of interest: He is the only leader in the world who controls the TV universe and can eliminate real facts that are unpleasant for him.
POGGIOLI: In recent years, Italy has won the dubious records of the highest tax evasion in the West and the largest number of serving MPs found guilty of criminal offenses.
In a recent report, the state accounts court said corruption in the public administration is so vast that it's preventing the country's economic development and eroding the public's faith in government.
Rolando Patarca, a fisherman who is also a part-time chef and political activist, is demoralized by the society he sees around him.
Mr. ROLANDO PATARCA (Political activist): (Through translator) A culture of illegality has taken hold. We no longer have an ethical role model. We no longer want to follow the rules and respect the law and the constitution. We're in disarray, and we have given up. We have lost sight of our basic civil rights.
POGGIOLI: Berlusconi is fond of saying, Italians like me the way I am. Through two decades of TV dominance, many analysts say, he has, in fact, reshaped Italian culture and values in his own image.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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