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Poland Targets TV Channel, Limits Press Freedom and Pluralism

Senate Should Reject Bill Preventing Foreign Media Owners

A woman holds a sign with the words "Free media" in Warsaw, Poland on August 11, 2021. © 2021 STR/NurPhoto via AP

Poland’s lower house unleashed a major threat to media pluralism on August 11, approving a bill that prevents non-European shareholders from owning a majority stake in Polish media companies. While the government has argued it needs to strengthen legislation to prevent Chinese and Russian companies from controlling Polish media outlets, the impact of the law in practice would be on independent station TVN and its 24-hour news station, TVN24. TVN’s majority stake holder is US media company Discovery.

Hundreds of journalists denounced the move as retaliation against TVN’s reporting, widely seen as critical of the government. Polish ruling coalition partners and progovernment media have repeatedly attacked and stigmatised the channel and its journalists. In July, the Broadcasting Council suspended TVN’s license, purportedly while it examined the ownership situation.

Thousands of people took to the streets in dozens of cities across Poland, protesting what they view as more restrictions on media freedom. The fragile ruling coalition led by Law and Justice party (PiS) was put under strain when coalition party deputy minister Jarosław Gowin was fired for opposing the draft law. The problematic bill also triggered tensions between Washington and Warsaw, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken issuing a statement expressing his concerns.

This is the latest in a string of attacks on media freedom in Poland during PiS’s rule. The country’s public broadcaster has been turned into a mouthpiece for the government and government officials regularly smear media outlets and journalists critical of the government and ruling party. In February this year, the government attempted to impose an advertisement tax, which would have had devastating consequences for the Polish media landscape. Following criticism, the bill was withdrawn. Poland’s declining space for media freedom bears the hallmarks of the Hungarian government’s approach to killing off independent media.

The bill now goes to the senate, parliament’s upper house, where the opposition holds a narrow majority. Senate speaker Tomasz Grodzki already tweeted that “the senate will never approve an attack on independent media”. It remains to be seen whether the senate will indeed reject this blatant attempt by the ruling party to silence critical voices and will send the law back to the lower house for review.

In case it doesn’t, the EU Commission should stand ready to trigger legal mechanisms to block a law that would seriously erode media pluralism, and to hold Poland’s government to account for stifling core European values.

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