Freeing itself from political interference has always been a challenge for RAI, Italian public broadcaster. RAI has repeatedly fallen victim to politicized dismissals and efforts to control its editorial line. Perhaps most notoriously, Silvio Berlusconi, as prime minister, launched purges of critical journalists in what became known as the “editto bulgaro” more than 20 years ago.

Since taking office October 2022, the far-right government led by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has taken efforts to control RAI to another level. This increasing capture of the public broadcaster has sparked mounting concerns about freedom of the media in Italy.

“The time has come to focus on a new storytelling”. This is how Roberto Sergio, the newly appointed CEO, defined the current shift in his recent letter to RAI employees. The fact that Sergio now leads the public broadcaster is the outcome of a series of incidents of political pressure which have developed in recent months.

Meloni’s media capture

Last October, when Meloni took power, RAI’s CEO was Carlo Fuortes. He had been appointed in 2021 by the previous government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi and was meant to stay. But indications began to come from the new Ministry of Culture that “a change of the RAI top management” was needed, as well as “a change of narrative”.

The Brothers of Italy, the post-fascist party led by Meloni, called for Fuortes’s resignation, while the government pushed for “a change of the management”. Gennaro Sangiuliano, the current culture minister, also played a key role, both as an ideologue and executor. In May, he gave the go-ahead for an ad-hoc rule that would be used to free up the director post of the San Carlo theatre in Naples for Fuortes in order to facilitate the latter’s removal from RAI.

Before being appointed as a member of Meloni’s government, Sangiuliano was the director of RAI’s TG2, where he reshaped the television news along a right-wing editorial line. A few months before the Italian elections, the then-TG2 director also spoke from the podium at the Brothers of Italy’s convention.

Appointments and resignations

At the beginning of May, Fuortes was forced to resign. In his resignation letter, he referred to the lack of freedom and the paralysis in which the company had been forced into for political reasons.

“A political clash has been ongoing since the start of 2023 about the role I have and me as a person which contributes to weakening RAI”, Fuortes said. “At the same time I have seen that there is no longer the constructive attitude within the board that there had been before and is indispensable for the management of the top Italian company in the culture sector.”

In mid-May, replacements arrived. Roberto Sergio was appointed as the new CEO by the board of directors. He then selected Giampaolo Rossi as director general. Within a year, Rossi himself could be promoted as the CEO; he is understood to be Meloni’s preferred option. But given that he held a position on RAI’s board, if he were appointed CEO immediately, his term would end in 2024.

In order to avoid a short mandate, Rossi will likely wait until the next round of appointments. His story is that of an extreme right-wing ideologue keeping a blog in a right-wing daily, “il Giornale”, attacking Brussels and writing things like this: “Putin’s fault is that he does not want to submit Russia to the dictates of the New World Order preached by Soros.”

The political takeover of RAI continued with appointments for the network’s top news posts. Since May 25, the head of TG1 has been Gian Marco Chiocci, who is close to Meloni. When he was the editor-in-chief of the Italian daily Il Tempo, he published Benito Mussolini’s picture on the front page with this headline: “Man of the year”. New appointments and “new storytelling” go hand in hand with further resignations: Fabio Fazio and Lucia Annunziata, two popular TV presenters, both decided to quit RAI in May.

After being the secretary general of Usigrai, RAI’s journalistic trade union, Vittorio Di Trapani now leads the Federazione Nazionale Stampa Italiana (FNSI), the Italian federation of journalists. ”It is crystal clear that Meloni’s government has made a quantum leap in the control of the public service”, he said.

“It did so with the appointment of a new CEO with a minority vote, or when it changed almost all the head directors with a minority vote thanks to board members who were appointed either by the government or by government parties. This seizure of the public broadcaster goes against constitutional court rulings and European principles.”

Meloni’s attack on RAI has been facilitated by a process of weakening of the public broadcaster. Di Trapani underlines the key role of the RAI governance reform passed under then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in 2015, which introduced the possibility of precisely such minority votes. “I have always warned about the risks”, Di Trapani said.

Attacks on media freedom

Data show that RAI’s independence was already under stress. The Media Pluralism Monitor 2022 of the Center for Media Pluralism and Freedom states that “the political independence area for Italy is assessed as being at medium risk (53%). A major concern is posed by the persisting political influence in the governance of RAI, evidencing the need for a comprehensive reform that could also assure the budgetary independence of the PSM.”

In recent months, press freedom organizations including the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) have raised the alarm about the increasing political takeover at RAI. The pressure on public broadcasting comes against a backdrop of an increased number of lawsuits and SLAPPs filed against journalists and independent media outlets by public officials in the new government, including the prime minister herself. Since the new government took power, several alerts regarding Italy have been uploaded to the Council of Europe’s platform for the safety of journalists. These incidents have included a police raid to seize an article at Domani newspaper, where this author works. And journalists who ask Meloni questions about scandals during her press conferences abroad have been accused of “damaging” their country, as the prime minister recently claimed in Berlin.

Proposed EMFA to the rescue?

“We have seen a strong and undue government intervention in Italy’s public media broadcaster governance”, Francesca Bria, a member of RAI’s board, said. “The EU Commission has proposed a regulation, the European Media Freedom Act. If it is approved, as I hope, Italy will not be able to escape.”

Article 5 of the proposed European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) states that “public service media providers shall provide in an impartial manner a plurality of information” and “the head of management and the members of the governing board of public service media providers shall be appointed through a transparent, open and non-discriminatory procedure and on the basis of transparent, objective, non-discriminatory and proportionate criteria”. The EMFA is expected to have an impact on the RAI issue – unless governments water down article 5 in the Council.

Francesca De Benedetti is a journalist at Domani, a leading Italian independent newspaper


This statement by IPI is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries, and Ukraine. The project is co-funded by the European Commission.