Italy state TV fires cartoonist for quake drawing

ROME (Reuters) - One of Italy’s most popular cartoonists has been fired by state television company RAI for an anti-government drawing deemed offensive to victims of last week’s earthquake.

Vauro Senese’s dismissal on Wednesday sparked an angry reaction from the center-left opposition which branded it censorship underscoring the grip that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has over Italy’s media.

The cartoon appeared on current affairs program Annozero, whose coverage of the authorities’ handling of the earthquake has been attacked by ruling politicians since it was aired last Thursday.

As well as firing Senese, RAI Director General Mauro Masi, who was recently appointed by Berlusconi’a parliamentary majority, ordered the program’s anchorman Michele Santoro to “re-balance” his coverage in this Thursday’s program.

The cartoon, aimed at government plans to ease restrictions on home extensions to boost the economy, featured an exhausted grave digger standing over a line of coffins under the caption “Increasing the cubic meters ...of the cemeteries.”

Masi said it was “gravely damaging to feelings of pity for the dead.”

Santoro, a left-winger who has clashed with media tycoon Berlusconi in the past, interviewed people who said rescue plans in the quake-prone area could have been better and criticized some aspects of the relief effort.

“You can’t just censor things you don’t like,” said Dario Franceschini, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party (PD). “The freedom of journalists to recount the facts has to be respected.”

A member of RAI’s board called Masi “the great inquisitor.”

Annozero was one of few critical voices in television coverage which focused almost exclusively on positive aspects of the authorities’ response to the quake that devastated the city of l’Aquila and killed 294 people.

Berlusconi, who owns Italy’s main private television network Mediaset and as prime minister has indirect control over RAI, has shown increasing annoyance with the press in recent weeks.

He said he was tempted to take “direct and tough action” against Italian media he accused of false coverage of alleged gaffes he had made at international summits.

Reporting by Gavin Jones; editing by Robert Woodward