Poland’s divisive media law passed by parliament

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Poland updates

Poland’s lower house of parliament has passed a controversial bill that could force a US media group to sell its controlling stake in Poland’s main independent broadcaster.

The bill, put forward by MPs from the conservative nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS), would prevent companies from outside the European Economic Area from owning a majority in Polish media companies.

The legislation is widely seen as an attack on TVN, a broadcaster owned by the US media conglomerate Discovery, which provides often critical coverage of the government

It comes amid a broader dismantling of checks and balances under PiS, during which the government has neutered the Constitutional Tribunal, tried to purge the Supreme Court and introduced a disciplinary regime for judges that allows them to be punished for the content of their rulings.

Discovery condemned the move as “an attack on core democratic principles of freedom of speech, the independence of the media” that was “directly discriminatory against TVN and Discovery”.

It also appealed to Poland’s Senate and president, who must now also deal with the bill, to prevent it from becoming law. “Poland’s future as a democratic country in the international arena and its credibility in the eyes of investors depend on this,” Discovery said.

The pressure on TVN, which is one of the biggest American investments in Poland, threatens to strain ties with the US, which Poland’s government regards as a key ally. Last week, a bipartisan group of US senators issued a statement expressing deep concern at “the Polish government’s continued democratic backsliding”.

“Any decision to implement these laws could have negative implications for defence, business and trade relations,” they warned.

MPs from PiS claim that the changes to Poland’s media law are necessary to prevent companies from undemocratic states from taking control of Polish media groups.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, PiS leader, claimed on Saturday that Poland had to protect itself from the entry of money launderers and “narco-businesses” into the media sector.

However, the bill is opposed by most opposition groups, and also by the Agreement party, which for the past six years was one of PiS’s two junior coalition partners.

On Wednesday morning, however, the party pulled out of the coalition after Mateusz Morawiecki, prime minister, sacked its leader, Jaroslaw Gowin.

Gowin had clashed with Morawiecki over various issues, including the media bill, which he has warned would hurt Poland’s image, damage its investment climate, and “above all expose us to a completely irrational fight with our main security guarantor, the US”.

Agreement’s departure deprived PiS of its formal parliamentary majority, raising questions over the reduced coalition’s ability to pass legislation. These were quickly underscored during a turbulent parliamentary sitting on Wednesday, where the opposition initially succeeded in passing a motion to postpone the vote on the media bill until September.

However, the Speaker of parliament, Elzbieta Witek, who is a PiS MP, subsequently said the vote on the postponement would be rerun. PiS won the vote at the second attempt, and then won the vote on the media bill itself.

The change to Poland’s media law is the latest in a series of moves by PiS that have undermined media freedoms and helped push the country from 18th to 64th place in the World Press Freedom index, below Malawi and Armenia, over the past half-decade.

Since coming to power in 2015, PiS has reduced the public broadcaster to a claque, used a state-owned oil group to buy up a swath of local media outlets, and funnelled advertising from state-owned companies to supportive media groups.

Poland’s media watchdog has also failed to issue a decision on the renewal of the broadcasting licence for TVN’s main news channel, TVN24, even though the application was submitted 18 months ago.

During the same sitting on Wednesday night, Poland’s parliament also passed a bill that will reduce the scope for property restitution claims, which has also drawn criticism from the US and Israel.

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