Why Poland’s Media Law Is Stirring Up Protest
(Bloomberg) -- Poland’s Law & Justice party has been under fire for eroding media freedom since winning power in 2015. Now an effort to restrict foreign ownership is taking the controversy to a new level. Proposed legislation targets Discovery Inc., the American owner of Poland’s largest private television network TVN. It undermines relations with the U.S., the muscle behind Poland’s NATO deterrence, while raising the alarm for foreign companies doing business in the European Union’s biggest post-communist economy.
1. What would the law do?
It tightens rules on foreign control of Polish television and radio stations to ban both direct and indirect ownership from outside the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. That means Discovery would need to sell at least a 50% stake in TVN. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has said the law is needed to prevent Russian or Chinese media from taking over a Polish broadcaster, and shows Poland is standing up for its rights after decades of accepting the international order. Since there are no deals on the table involving either country, the move is widely seen as targeting Discovery, a major U.S. investor in Poland.
2. How does it fit into the anti-establishment campaign?
Law & Justice has a track record of divisive policies it says are aimed at improving the lot of the common man and keeping the country rooted in its Catholic traditions. It has stigmatized migrants, cracked down on the LGBTQ+ community and passed legislation giving politicians more sway over the courts, triggering EU lawsuits over democratic standards. It has turned public broadcasters into the mouthpiece of the government while state companies stopped advertising in media that’s critical of the ruling party. In 2020, a government-run oil company bought 20 daily newspapers and 150 weekly magazines. TVN’s news channel, TVN24, has succeeded in strengthening its market share while its award-winning investigative reports have repeatedly broken government sleaze and graft scandals.
3. Who’s criticized the law?
The move has been attacked by U.S. senators, the State Department and the EU as an attempt to muzzle independent media. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that the media law would “gravely weaken media freedom” while Vera Jourova, the European Commission vice president in charge of values, said the country was reining in “media pluralism and diversity of opinions.” Jean-Briac Perrette, president and chief executive officer of Discovery International, said the legislation “will have a chilling effect” on foreign investment in Poland. Business lobbies have pleaded for the government to back down while local media have speculated over how the U.S. might retaliate if the law is implemented. Poland’s nationalist leaders were enthusiastic supporters of former President Donald Trump and bilateral relations have soured since his successor Joe Biden took office.
4. How could this play out?
The draft law was passed by the lower house on Aug. 11 and was sent to Poland’s opposition-controlled Senate, which has 30 days to amend the legislation -- for example by adding the U.S. to the list of countries allowed. The lower chamber will then vote on whether to approve or reject the upper house’s amendments, potentially giving Law & Justice another chance to blink. The bill will then go to President Andrzej Duda, a ruling-party loyalist, who could sign it into law, veto it or send it to the country’s Constitutional Tribunal for checks. Ruling party officials have also voiced hopes that TVN could find a new local owner or owners, if Discovery was willing to sell its asset.
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