AFP - More than 100,000 people rallied for press freedom in Rome's central square on Saturday, protesting that scandal-plagued Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi wants to muzzle the media.
"Berlusconi is bad for Italy's health," read one banner emulating warnings on cigarette packets at the demonstration organised by the Italian Press Federation, opposition groups and left-wing trades unionists at Piazza del Popolo.
The square was packed with protesters holding green, white and red balloons in the colours of Italy's flag. Another banner read, "we are all scoundrels", a term Berlusconi used to describe some TV journalists.
"We ask the prime minister to stop the campaign of accusations against journalists and to tell the truth," Franco Siddi, head of the Italian Press Federation, told the crowd.
Organisers said 350,000 took part in the protest, while city authorities put the figure at 60,000. AFP correspondents estimated the crowd in the square at more than 100,000.
The protest comes after months of revelations about Berlusconi's private life spurred the prime minister cum media tycoon to file a series of lawsuits against newspapers in Italy, France and Spain.
His supporters have also called on Italians to stop paying their public television viewing fees.
Il Giornale, a newspaper belonging to the Berlusconi family's media empire Mediaset, recently fumed: "On Rai (public TV), it's anti-Berlusconism seven days a week,"
Mediaset also owns three private TV stations while the government has de facto control over Rai.
Accusations of an anti-Berlusconi bias have spiked since Rai 2 twice invited to its studios a call girl who claims to have accepted money to spend the night with the prime minister.
The government threatened to eliminate the show in question, "Annozero", which claimed an audience of seven million, or 29 percent of the viewing public, the second time call girl Patrizia D'Addario appeared on the show Thursday.
The government has suspended the contracts of the journalists who work for Annozero.
Berlusconi has also sued the director of La Reppublica newspaper, Ezio Mauro, who has published 10 questions asking the prime minister to clarify the nature of his relationship with a teenage model.
On Friday, the head of the press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders, Jean-Francois Julliard, said Berlusconi was on the way towards becoming the first European head of government to join the group's "list of predators of freedom of the press."
Recalling that in June Berlusconi urged businesses not to advertise in the left-leaning La Repubblica daily, Julliard told a news conference: "We know of similar cases only in Belarus and Zimbabwe."
Berlusconi on Friday dismissed Saturday's planned protest as a "farce," saying: "Freedom is greater in Italy than in any other Western country."
Enrico Mentana, a former star Mediaset journalist who quit after an editorial dispute, suggested that freedom of the press in Italy did not face a greater threat than before.
"Here you can read either that Berlusconi is a god or an imbecile, a saint or a confirmed delinquent," he said.
"Each time, it's double vision, but with a flagrant imbalance in favour of the prime minister, who by the way is a reflection of political life with an extremely weakened left," Mentana said.
In fact, while Berlusconi is a favourite target on the few satirical or political debate programmes on Rai 2 and Rai 3, he enjoys fawning admiration from Rai 1, which is traditionally close to the government.
The station accorded the prime minister two hours recently during which he defended his policies without interruption.
"Happy birthday! You are at home here," Rai 1's news announcer said without an ounce of irony last Tuesday, when Berlusconi turned 73.