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Berlusconi asks if probed

Inspectors sent to 'RAI pressure' probe city

15 March, 17:30
Berlusconi asks if probed
Berlusconi asks if probed
Berlusconi asks if probed

(ANSA) - Rome, March 15 - Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi on Monday asked prosecutors to confirm press reports that he is under investigation for allegedly trying to muzzle criticism on talk shows produced by state broadcaster RAI.

So far, lawyers for the premier said, he had received no formal notification from the prosecutors in the Puglian city of Trani.

According to legal experts, however, the prosecutors are not in fact obliged to say if anyone is actually under investigation.

They may have decided to keep the names secret until the probe reaches a later stage, the experts said, citing an article in Italy's penal code. Italian newspapers published wiretaps over the weekend in which Berlusconi is allegedly heard to ask a member of Italy's broadcasting watchdog Agcom, Giancarlo Innocenzi, for help in stopping criticism from purportedly hostile talk shows such as Annozero, an investigative talk show which has gone farther than any in discussing the premier's legal woes and his private life.

The investigation stems from a completely separate one opened late last year into suspiciously high charges on American Express cards, for which the Trani prosecutors obtained authorisation to tap phone conversations.

Innocenzi was called in for questioning, as a potential witness, in the original probe on December 17 and was also asked whether he had been pressured by Berlusconi on the talk shows.

He reportedly denied this.

Italian Justice Minister Angelino Alfano has sent ministerial inspectors to Trani to establish whether the prosecutors overstepped the boundaries of their investigation.

On Monday he claimed "the rules on wiretaps have been an "unconstitutional way" under existing norms "and not even under the stricter rules we are trying to introduce".

Alfano also said the inspectors would be asking prosecutors to "make an effort to find out who is responsible for leaking these wiretaps to the media".

But the justice minister stressed that the inspectors "must not, cannot and will not interfere with the investigation, which must go on".

Berlusconi's lead lawyer and a member of his People of Freedom party, Niccolo' Ghedini, told reporters that the wiretaps contained no "criminally relevant" information.

Trani Chief Prosecutor Carlo Maria Capristo said he was "serene" ahead of the inspections, expected to begin on Tuesday.

A member of the judiciary's self-governing body who was allegedly asked for legal advice in muzzling Annozero, Cosimo Ferri, also said he was "extremely serene" ahead of a hearing Tuesday of the body, the Supreme Council of Magistrates.

Among the 18 phone calls which Italian daily Corriere della Sera said Berlusconi made on the issue were several to Augusto Minzolini, the recently appointed head of RAI's flagship news programme TG1.

Minzolini, who is not under investigation, also said Monday he was not worried about the probe.

The former print journalist, who was reportedly handpicked by Berlusconi for the TG1 job, has courted controversy in recent months, and even sparked protests from TG's internal unions, for a string of 'editorials' in favour of the premier and against the centre-left opposition.

One of these slammed coverage of the premier's private life as "muckraking" while another pooh-poohed an opposition-led demonstration for freedom of information.

Minzolini has also been accused of hushing up stories against the premier.

On one occasion, TG1 reported that the premier's tax lawyer David Mills had been "acquitted" instead of saying that he had escape punishment for a bribe because of the statute of limitations.

Minzolini said Monday he had admitted this "mistake" and claimed he was the victim of "a campaign, indeed even intimidation, that has been going on for months".

But he said he was "an independent and autonomous" journalist who stood by the editorial comment he had made.

Minzolini's case is set to be examined this week by RAI's parliamentary watchdog.

Meanwhile RAI's board on Monday voted by five to four to confirm a suspension of RAI's political talk shows ahead of March 28-29 regional elections, decided by Agcom two weeks ago under equal-time norms - but to ask RAI's parliamentary watchdog for instruction on the matter.

A regional court (TAR) in Lazio on Friday overturned the Agcom ruling for private TV after an appeal by Italy's fourth private terrestrial channel, La 7, and satellite channel Sky.

So far Berlusconi's three-channel Mediaset network, which commands the vast majority of the private TV audience, has not responded to the TAR ruling.

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