Italian watchdog could start Vivendi assets investigation next week - source

MILAN, Dec 8 (Reuters) - Italy’s communications watchdog AGCOM could open a new investigation into French media conglomerate Vivendi’s interests in the country as early as next week, a source familiar with the matter said on Tuesday.

The aim would be to establish whether Vivendi, as an investor in Italy’s media and telecoms sectors, complies with rules designed to protect media plurality which Rome has been forced to revise after a European Union court ruling.

The source said AGCOM’s board could launch the investigation when it meets on Dec. 14.

The move could help Italian broadcaster Mediaset in a long-running fight against Vivendi, its second-largest shareholder, which the group controlled by the family of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi considers hostile.

Vivendi, controlled by billionaire Vincent Bollore, holds a 29% stake in Mediaset, and is also top investor in the country’s former phone monopolist Telecom Italia (TIM) with a 24% holding.

The French company has been forced to transfer two-thirds of its voting rights in Mediaset into an arms-length trust due to a 2017 AGCOM decision which found the twin stakes in breach of Italian laws protecting media plurality.

The trust has been prevented from voting at Mediaset’s shareholder meetings.

The voting rights freeze stems from Italian rules setting market share thresholds to prevent an excessive power concentration in telecoms and media. But the EU’s top court in September ruled that these measures violate the bloc’s rules.

That prompted Rome to approve stop-gap legislation last month requiring AGCOM to start a new probe into Vivendi’s Italian assets, which will last up to six months, pending a wider reform of the country’s media laws

Vivendi has asked an administrative court to scrap the restrictions on its voting rights, with a hearing on the case set for Dec. 16.

Italian state lawyers have asked the administrative court to postpone any decision until AGCOM’s new probe is completed.

Legal sources have said existing restrictions could remain in place until the probe is carried out.

Vivendi and Mediaset both declined to comment. (Reporting by Elvira Pollina; Editing by Jan Harvey)