Italy nixes RAI sell-off

Crown Castle planned to buy into transmission biz

MILAN — The Italian government has blocked the sale of 49% of RaiWay, the company which controls the transmission network of pubcaster RAI, to U.S. group Crown Castle.

The decision, announced Friday by Italian communications minister Maurizio Gasparri, invalidates a preliminary deal announced in April in which Crown Castle agreed to pay 800 billion lire ($380 million) for the holding through its U.K. subsid.

The sale of RaiWay was to be the first step in privatizing the huge state-owned TV group. A sweeping reform of RAI was planned by Italy’s former left-of-center government.

However, after the victory of Silvio Berlusconi’s right wing coalition in the summer, all plans regarding RAI were frozen.

According to Gasparri, the sale of RaiWay had to be blocked because the assets are strategic and the company should remain in public hands.

But Italy’s opposition and a large part of the TV industry believe the sale would have gone against Berlusconi’s personal wish to weaken RAI, the only broadcaster competing against Italy’s largest media and TV group Mediaset, which the billionaire prime minister refuses to sell.

“After this decision, Italy is less free, RAI is poorer and the free market is threatened if not cancelled,” Francesco Rutelli, one of the heads of the opposition, said.

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