Poland struggles to pass media legislation

Poland media

Coalition seeks to push through bill critics say attacks press freedoms

Poland’s Law and Justice party yesterday struggled to push through 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 party, a conservative nationalist group known as PiS, would prevent companies from outside the European Economic Area from owning a majority of Polish media companies.

The proposed 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.

In a sign of the mounting pressure on the PiS-led coalition, which lost one of its three constituent parties earlier yesterday, opposition parties succeeded in passing a motion suspending the parliamentary sitting until September. However, as the FT went to print PiS succeeded in overturning the postponement, paving the way for the vote to be held.

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

PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski claimed on Saturday that Poland had to protect itself from the entry of money launderers and “narco-businesses” into the country’s media sector. However, the bill is opposed by most opposition parties, who regard it as a brazen attack on media freedoms. It is also opposed by the Agreement party, which for the past six years was one of PiS’s two junior coalition partners.

Yesterday morning, however, the party pulled out of the coalition after Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki sacked Agreement’s leader, Jaroslaw Gowin. Gowin had clashed with Morawiecki over various issues, including the media bill, which he 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 serious questions about the reduced coalition’s ability to pass legislation. These were underscored during yesterday’s turbulent parliamentary sitting, where PiS also lost two other votes.

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 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.

The pressure on Poland’s media 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.

Last week a bipartisan group of US senators expressed concern at “the Polish government’s continued democratic backsliding”. They said: “We are monitoring legislation under consideration . . . that, if passed and signed into law, would discriminate against non-EU companies and likely force out of Poland a major US investor employing several thousand people.”

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