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US Senator wants review of sale of AT&T unit operating in Central Europe over Chinese support

Sen. Marco Rubio (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Senator Marco Rubio (Republican-Florida) is asking U.S. officials to review the national-security implications of AT&T’s planned sale of its majority stake in Central European Media Group Enterprises (CME) to a Czech-owned conglomerate because of its record of acting as “China’s proxies” inside the Czech Republic.

In a letter dated February 27 and sent to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Attorney General William Barr, Rubio wrote that PPF Group, the Czech company that is looking to buy CME, has “supported China’s malign activities abroad.”

In particular, Rubio, who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees and chairs the bipartisan and bicameral Congressional-Executive Commission on China, added that PPF-owned telecommunications firms are working with Huawei Technologies to develop 5G networks.

“I believe the Administration needs to conduct closer reviews of corporate deals like AT&T’s sale of CME, and understand how the Chinese government and Communist Party work through proxies like PPF,” Rubio wrote in the letter, which requests the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) exercise its authority and launch a “full review” of the national security implications of the upcoming sale.

“Failure to do so undercuts U.S. diplomatic efforts aimed at countering the Chinese Communist Party’s political interference in foreign governments and societies,” he added.

Washington added Huawei to an economic blacklist in May, citing security fears over the company’s products.

Besides the Czech Republic, CME operates in Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, “reaching around 97 million people,” Rubio said, adding that the group “owns some of the most-watched news programming in Central and Eastern Europe.”

AT&T did not immediately comment, while PPF said it appeared Rubio was relying on “false information” from a Czech politician.

PPF said that as part of the process of acquiring CME, it is cooperating with all the relevant regulatory bodies and providing them with “all necessary information.”

“The fact that we, like thousands of other Western companies, also operate in China, does not in any way imply a contradictory worldview,” PPF said in a statement.

“Far from it; as people who have lived a considerable part of their lives under totalitarian communism, we deeply value freedom of expression,” it added.

Last year, AT&T announced it would sell its majority stake in CME it had acquired in 2018.