ROME (Reuters) - Italian journalists and opposition politicians accused state broadcaster RAI of censorship on Tuesday after it announced it was suspending political talk shows ahead of key regional elections this month.
The board of RAI, dominated by supporters of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, voted on Monday to suspend the shows ahead of the March 28-29 polls to avoid possible sanctions from a parliamentary committee.
Berlusconi has attacked RAI in the past for criticising the government, but his opponents say his political influence over RAI, and his family's ownership of its main commercial rival, give him an unacceptable sway over the media.
RAI is required by law to guarantee equal airtime to politicians of all sides and can face sanctions if it is found to have breached the rules.
To avoid the problem, the broadcaster will temporarily replace some of the talk shows -- a staple of Italy's political and media diet -- with a series of moderated debates between the candidates.
"This puts an unprecedented silencer on the freedom of the press," said Giovanni Floris, presenter of the weekly political talk-show Ballaro. "We're going to do anything and everything we can to beat this and go on the air."
Ill-feeling between state media and the government has festered over the past year amid the sex scandals and corruption allegations which have dogged the premier.
Berlusconi, who denies any wrongdoing, said last year it was "unacceptable" that the state-funded RAI, which runs three national television channels, was the only broadcaster to consistently criticise his government.
Berlusconi's Mediaset group owns three of the remaining four national television channels. His critics say that his sway over RAI, whose directors are named by a parliamentary committee dominated by Berlusconi's coalition, gives him far too much power over Italy's media.
Monday's decision was approved with the votes of RAI's five government-appointed directors and its director-general, and opposed by three opposition ones and its president.
"RAI should realise that, political pressures aside, censorship during an electoral campaign does not serve anyone's interests, not even the right," said opposition lawmaker Giorgio Merlo, deputy-head of the parliamentary committee which monitors RAI.
Berlusconi's coalition, expected to win the elections taking place in 13 of Italy's 20 regions, has been shaken in recent weeks by a corruption scandal at the civil protection agency and accusations of mafia links to some legislators.
The accusations of censorship were dismissed as "ridiculous" by Enzo Fassano, a legislator for Berlusconi's People of Freedom party (PDL) and a member of the committee that oversees RAI.
"All this amounts to is a few presenters taking a break for a couple of weeks so the candidates can debate fairly," he said.
The consumer union Federconsumatori said it would explore whether suspending the talk shows may violate RAI's public service obligations.
"This situation puts us on the same level of democracy and free press as Zimbabwe," said Federconsumatori's head, Rosario Trefiletti.
Editing by Daniel Flynn and Robin Pomeroy