Poland races through media law seen as targeting US broadcaster

WARSAW — In an unexpected move on Friday, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party rushed a controversial media bill through parliament that critics say is targeted at Poland’s biggest independent broadcaster TVN, owned by the U.S. media giant Discovery. 

The legislation will sour Warsaw’s relations with Washington, which has blasted the law in the past.

The bill only allows companies that are majority-owned by entities from the European Economic Area to hold broadcast licenses in Poland. That would force U.S.-based Discovery to sell its majority stake in TVN, Poland’s biggest independent broadcaster. TVN is formally owned by a Dutch-registered company that’s in turn owned by Discovery.

TVN and its news arm, TVN24, infuriate the government with critical reporting. The nationalist government led by PiS has made an effort to put parts of Poland’s media under political control.

PiS insists that the law is needed to limit foreign influence over the national media, but the only company affected by the legislation is Discovery.

The media bill was first approved by the lower house of parliament in August before being rejected by the opposition-controlled upper chamber Senate.

Its reappearance on the last day of the legislative calendar on Friday was a surprise as there had been doubts that the government, which has a very fragile parliamentary majority, would have the votes to override the Senate. But the legislation was passed in a speedy proceeding that the political opposition said violated parliamentary procedure.

It has to be signed by PiS-backed President Andrzej Duda to become law. Earlier in the summer, Duda hinted he would veto new rules. On Friday, he said he would “analyze” the bill. 

TVN Discovery called the vote “an unprecedented attack on the free media.” 

“This action is aimed at the greatest and most important Polish ally, because the United States is the basis of Polish security and a large part of the Polish economy,” the company said in a statement. The company added that it would “use all legal means to continue the mission of our media in Poland” and that it trusted that Duda would veto the bill.

Bix Aliu, acting U.S. ambassador in Warsaw, said Washington is “extremely disappointed” with the developments and urged Poland’s president to reject the legislation.  

The opposition charged that the government raced the bill through to distract the country from a host of problems ranging from soaring COVID deaths, high energy prices and an ongoing border crisis with Belarus.

“They are going to war with the free media,” tweeted Donald Tusk, leader of Civic Platform, the main opposition party.

The legislation adds to Warsaw’s long list of problems in Brussels.

Věra Jourová , vice president of the European Commission responsible for rule-of-law and media freedom, said in a statement that the vote “puts further pressure on an already troubled media sector in Poland,” stressing that if that bill becomes law, Brussels “will not hesitate to take action in case of non-compliance with the EU law.”

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