Controversial media law bill faces vote in Polish Parliament

Published : August 11, 2021 19:44 IST

A new law in Poland has the ruling Law and Justice Party at odds over press freedom with the largest U.S. investor ever in Poland. Photo: Aleksander Kalka/ZUMA/picture alliance

A controversial media bill is set to be debated and voted on in parliament Wednesday. Critics say the amendment to the country's media law could bring Poland closer to a situation like in Hungary.

Poland's parliament was set to debate and vote on a controversial media law on August 11 that places the country at odds with one of its most important allies, the U.S.

The controversial bill forbids non-European-Union citizens and companies from possessing a controlling stake in Polish media outlets. It was introduced last month and is seen as a key test of media freedom and democracy in Poland.

While the government cites the risk of hostile foreign powers such as Russia and China grabbing an ownership stake in Polish media, the target of the law appears to be US-owned TVN, which operates the news channel TVN24 and has Discovery Inc. as its parent company. Across Poland Tuesday, protesters turned out in support of TVN and against the law to calls of "free media!"

Bill triggers a dismissal then resignations

Ahead of the vote, the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party lost its parliamentary majority. On August 10 , Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki dismissed Jaroslaw Gowin, the head of the smaller Agreement Party in the coalition who opposes the bill, from the government. On August 11, Gowin said his party was formally leaving the coalition, meaning Law and Justice lost its razor thin parliamentary majority.

President Andrzej Duda later dismissed Gowin from his roles as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Development, Labor and Technology, according to the Polish press agency. Also on Wednesday, the Deputy Ministers of Development, Labor and Technology Iwona Michalek, Andrzej Gut-Mostowy, and Grzegorz Piechowiak resigned, Radio Zet News reports. Wojciech Murdzek, the Deputy Minister of Education and Science, also announced his resignation according to TVN24.

Government spokesman Piotr Muller told public broadcaster Polskie Radio 1, "the media law will gain a majority in parliament and I am sure that the United Right government will continue to function."

TVN: A critical voice and the largest US investment in Poland

TVN is the largest ever US investment in Poland, valued at $2 billion (€1.7 billion) at the time of its acquisition by Scripps Network Interactive, which was later acquired by Discovery. Its flagship nightly news program is watched by millions of Poles and remains a critical voice in a country where many opposition-minded outlets have been squeezed. Critics say the taxpayer funded public TV station has already turned into a mouthpiece for the government.

In the context of the current media climate, the law seeks to push US company Discovery Inc. to sell its controlling stake in TVN.

The National Broadcasting Council in Poland has yet to renew the broadcast license for TVN24. Its current license is set to expire next month. Jean-Briac Perrette, the president and CEO of Discovery International, said, "an unpredictable regulatory framework should be very concerning for all potential investors in the market.''

Critics charge the law takes aim at press freedom

While the ruling Law and Justice Party has long sought to nationalize media under the pretext of national security, critics charge the bill is much more about message control and bringing critics in line. The government argues the law would update Polish law to be on par with other countries in Europe such as France and Germany, in limiting foreign ownership in media companies but Poland's reputation for media freedom and as a place for foreign direct investment are on the line.

Critics charge the law brings Poland closer to functioning like Hungary where the autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orban has wrestled near total control of the media as outlets have folded under pressure or been gobbled up by government allies. Donald Tusk, a former prime minister and senior EU official who returned to the Polish political scene last month as the leader of the opposition Civic Platform, said the law is a "return to communist patterns.''

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tweeted as the debate in the Parliament got underway Wednesday, "As a member of NATO and the European Union, the Polish government must respect the democratic values which underpin its security and prosperity."

Last week, a bipartisan U.S. Congressional group expressed concern "about the ongoing attacks on the free press, independent judiciary and the rule of law in Poland.'' Reporters without Borders opposes the legislation and accuses the Law and Justice Party of using the law "to enable government allies to acquire TVN."

Whereas Poland was in 18th place on its annual World Press Freedom Index in 2015, the year Law and Justice came to power, currently Poland is ranked at 64th of 180 countries. Last year, the state oil company PKN Orlen bought a large private media group.

ar/aw (AP, Reuters)