Berlusconi, Italy's richest man, either directly or indirectly controls about 90% of the country's television through his three private Mediaset channels and the politically-appointed board of state broadcaster RAI.

  

The complex legislation, dubbed the Gasparri bill after Communications Minister Maurizio Gasparri, will pave the way for multi-channel digital broadcasting. It is coming up for debate on Wednesday.

  

Critics argue that it goes to the heart of the conflicts of interest row surrounding the right-wing leader's public power and private wealth.

 

Confident

  

Communications Minister, Maurizio Gasparri, said he was confident the bill would be adopted in a vote in the lower house of parliament, possibly as early as Wednesday.

  

For the bill to take effect, the Chamber of Deputies must approve an identical version of that passed by the Senate in July - if not, it must go back to the upper house.

  

However, Berlusconi's ruling centre-right coalition controls a majority in both houses, so there is little risk of the complex legislation being defeated unless there are defections.

  

Barring "electricity failures" the government project and timetable would be on schedule, Gasparri told journalists, in a wry reference to a power outage that blacked out Italy last Sunday.

  

The bill redefines the rules and principles of the audio-visual system and the public broadcasting company RAI in advance of the introduction of terrestrial digital television in 2007.

  

With that in prospect it revises anti-trust legislation in the media designed to protect the diversity of information in Italy, commits RAI to partial privatisation and remodels the composition of RAI's top management.

 

"Barring 'electricity failures' the government project and timetable would be on schedule"

Maurizio Gasparri
communications minister

But Italy's political opposition and a section of media professionals accuse Berlusconi of trying to use the reform to strengthen his hold over the media.

  

President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi has warned that lack of media diversity threatened Italy's democracy.

  

Although no longer personally managing his media empire, Berlusconi and his family remain owners of three national channels, Italia 1, Rete 4 and Canale 5, providing major competition to the three public RAI channels.

  

His holding company Fininvest also has interests in cinemas, publishing - through the publishing house Mondadori - and the press, with such titles as Panorama and Il Giornale.

  

Critics fear the reforms could enable Berlusconi to take over more newspapers, interfere further in the management of RAI, and could also cause greater imbalance, favouring television over print media.

  

An ad hoc group of journalists, intellectuals and arts personalities opposing the bill called for a demonstration on Wednesday outside parliament.

 

The reforming legislation also changes the set-up at troubled state broadcaster RAI, which is losing advertising revenue to Mediaset.

  

The five-person board will be replaced in early 2004 by a new nine-member body, under the new legislation. The present board was appointed only last March.