A bill to restrict foreign ownership of Polish media was unexpectedly passed by parliament today. The bill is seen as particularly targeting Poland’s largest private broadcaster – US-owned TVN, whose coverage is often critical of the government – and today’s developments have provoked a protest from the American Embassy.
The legislation had been dormant since September, after being rejected by the opposition-controlled Senate. But this afternoon it was quickly pushed through committee by the ruling national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party before then being passed in a vote by the dominant lower house Sejm, where the government has a majority .
The bill now heads to the president, Andrzej Duda, who must decide whether to sign it or not. If he does, it could trigger a diplomatic crisis with the United States, which has strongly criticized the legislation, as have other allies including the UK and EU.
The United States is extremely disappointed with today’s passage of the media bill by the Sejm. We expect President Duda to act in accordance with previous statements and use his leadership to protect free speech and business.
— Bix Aliu (@USAmbPoland) December 17, 2021
The proposed law would prevent entities outside the European Economic Area (EEA) from holding a majority stake in Polish media. The only major outlet that would be affected is TVN, which is owned by US conglomerate Discovery, Inc.
Since TVN’s coverage is often critical of the government, many see the legislation as part of efforts to silence critical voices. Under the PiS six-year rule, Poland has already fallen every year in the annual report World Press Freedom Index to occupy its lowest position.
The PiS, however, denied that the bill is directed against any company and says it is necessary to prevent entities from countries like Russia and China from buying Polish media. Party chairman Jarosław Kaczyński claimed he would prevent “narco-businesses” from buying outlets to “launder dirty money”.
Proponents of the bill also noted that Polish law already theoretically prohibits ownership of media by entities outside the EEA, but that Discovery evaded this by owning TVN through a Dutch subsidiary. And they note that many other countries restrict foreign ownership of media.
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After the legislation was passed this afternoon, US Charge d’Affaires Bix Aliu – who heads the US Embassy in Warsaw until a new ambassador is appointed – announced that “the United States is extremely disappointed with today’s passage of the Media Bill by the Sejm”.
“We expect President Duda to act in accordance with previous statements to use his leadership to protect free speech and business,” Aliu added. In August, Duda hinted he could veto the law, calling it “controversial” and saying Poland “must weigh our interests” before making a decision.
A presidential veto can only be overturned by a three-fifths majority of the Sejm, which would be impossible for the PiS to achieve given that most opposition parties oppose the bill.
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In a statement seen by Notes from Poland, Discovery warned that “the outcome of today’s surprise vote in the Polish parliament should be of deep concern to any company investing in Poland and anyone who cares about democracy and freedom of the press”.
“With this vote, Poland risks directly undermining the values that have bound Poland to Europe and uprooting the foundations of the Polish-American relationship,” the company said.
Former US Ambassador to Poland Daniel Fried, who is now a member of the Atlantic Council, tweeted in response to today’s developments that the law is “directed against media freedom and America’s biggest investment in Poland”.
“At a time when US-Polish solidarity is needed in the face of Putin’s threats against Ukraine, this seems… questionable,” he added.
Poland drops to record low in World Press Freedom Index
Main image credit: Patryk Ogorzalek / Agencja Gazeta
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland. He has written about Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Police, POLITICO Europe, EUobserver and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.