The government of Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who is involved in a sex scandal many say fosters a demeaning image of Italian women, took action Wednesday against ads that use vulgar images of the female body.
The initiative drew praise in a country where scantily-clad women are used to promote just about everything. But it also attracted sarcasm, after widespread reports that parties at a Berlusconi villa involved scores of young girls, sometimes topless, drinking and dancing.
The minister for equal opportunity, Mara Carfagna, signed a protocol with an association of advertisers and other industry operators to set up a panel that could ban ads that are "plainly wrong, dangerous, vulgar and offensive."
Carfagna, a former showgirl who once posed for a racy calendar, fended off questions during a press conference about Berlusconi, who is under investigation in Milan on suspicion he paid for sex with a 17-year-old Moroccan and used his office to cover it up.
The 74-year-old Italian leader has denied wrongdoing.
Carfagna said she had thought of postponing the announcement to a "more serene moment," but she also defended Berlusconi, saying nothing had been proved and that it was not her place to pass "moral judgment."
An opposition politician, Debora Serracchiani, welcomed the ad initiative, but also asked Carfagna if "offering thousands of euros to have groups of beautiful girls over for dinner ... shows a healthy relations with women's bodies."
"Signing an agreement is not enough to protect the dignity of women," she charged. "It's necessary to be credible, and Berlusconi's government is not."
The Moroccan girl, known as Ruby, has denied having sex with the premier, though she said Berlusconi gave her €7,000 to help her out financially. Other girls implicated in the scandal have come out to say they received money or jewels after dinners at the villa, according to Italian news reports.
More than 2,000 Italian women have recently signed an online petition to promote a different kind of woman than the one typically associated with Berlusconi, whose private TV channels for decades have been filled with semi-naked, voluptuous girls. The campaign, entitled "Basta!" or "Enough!" and coordinated by the leftist newspaper L'Unita, aims to tell Berlusconi that not all women in Italy are prostitutes or showgirls.
Famiglia Cristiana, an influential Catholic magazine that is distributed in parishes across Italy, said in an editorial Wednesday that men, too, should feel "outraged at the public humiliation of women." It was the latest criticism from a Catholic publication, signaling the church's growing unease over the scandal.
Berlusconi has denied ever having sex with Ruby, who has in the meantime turned 18. He also insists the dinner parties at his villas are elegant and proper affairs and that he has nothing to be ashamed of. The premier maintains he is persecuted by leftist magistrates who want to drive him out of office.
Milan prosecutors, however, continued to investigate.
On Wednesday, they sent more documents to a parliamentary committee that has to decide whether to give prosecutors special permission to search some of Berlusconi's properties, the ANSA news agency and other news reports said. They issued a summons for a Berlusconi associate who has also been placed under investigation in the case, Nicole Minetti, according to the reports.