WARSAW — Poland’s nationalist ruling coalition is pushing a media bill through parliament that has critics warning it’s an attempt to void the broadcast license of a U.S.-owned television station that’s often critical of the government.
The draft bill — just four pages long — was submitted to the Polish parliament late Wednesday by a group of MPs from the Law and Justice (PiS) party. It proposes only granting licenses to companies not majority-owned by entities from outside the European Economic Area.
That’s aimed at TVN, owned by Discovery of the U.S., which is applying for a renewal of its broadcast permit that runs out in September. The channel is one of Poland’s most-watched, and it also owns influential news channel TVN24.
The channel infuriates the government by regularly reporting on corruption scandals, tensions with the EU, negative reactions to anti-LGBTQ+ measures, problems with sweeping reforms to the court system and other areas where the authorities prefer not to be criticized.
The government insists this is simply an effort to bring ownership rules into line with similar laws in other EU countries.
Piotr Müller, a government spokesperson, said the measure “in no way limits media freedom.”
“Imagine a situation where a media in Poland … would be bought by an entity from Russia, China or an Arab country,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Thursday. “Would we as citizens want the right to say ‘no’?”
The issue with that narrative is that TVN isn’t owned by an authoritarian country but by one of Poland’s closest allies, which is also stationing troops on Polish soil. Poland and the U.S. have a bilateral investment treaty saying investments should be “accorded fair and equitable treatment” and allows for arbitration claims.
Bix Aliu, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, tweeted: “The US has been observing the TVN licensing process and the newly proposed legislation with rising concern. TVN has been an essential part of the Polish media landscape for over 20 years. Unfettered press is crucial for democracy. “
The TV station said in a statement that “the ownership structure of the company complies” with the provisions of Poland’s broadcasting media law.
“We emphasize that in 2015 the National Broadcasting Council accepted the entry of American capital into our company and until applying for an extension of the TVN24 license, the ownership structure of TVN did not raise any doubts,” the company said.
If passed, the new regulation could also hit a number of other non-EU owned broadcasters, available via Polish satellite and cable TV, such as HBO, owned by U.S. WarnerMedia or the U.K.’s state-owned BBC.
A leaf in the wind
It’s not the first time the government has taken aim at TVN — part of a campaign of what the government says is a need to “repolonize” the media. Former U.S. Ambassador to Warsaw Georgette Mosbacher tangled several times with the PiS-led government and warned it away from taking measures aimed at hobbling TVN.
But the political calculation is changing thanks to growing tensions in the PiS-led United Right coalition, which is on the edge of losing its parliamentary majority. Elections are supposed to be held in 2023, but the chances of a snap poll are rising, and PiS isn’t certain of hanging on to power, according to POLITICO’s poll of polls.
The danger to the government is also rising thanks to the return of Donald Tusk, a former prime minister and president of the European Council, to active politics last week. He’s seen as a figure who might be able to unite fractious opposition parties. As a result, he’s been subjected to furious attacks from Poland’s state-owned TVP broadcaster, which critics say has been turned into a propaganda arm of the government.
“I see a steady march to take control of everything that isn’t dependent on the PiS central committee,” Tusk told Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper. He added that developments in Poland mirror those in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government has taken over or closed almost all independent media.
The PiS-led government has been moving to limit media criticism since it took power in 2015. Advertising from state-controlled companies is now almost exclusively directed to right-wing media friendly to the ruling party.
In December, state-controlled refiner PKN Orlen announced it was buying the Polska Press publisher from Germany’s Verlagsgruppe Passau, the owner of 20 regional newspapers, almost 120 local weeklies and more than 500 online websites in Poland, with a total audience estimated at some 17.5 million readers.
Despite disputes in court over Orlen’s ownership rights, the company has moved swiftly to put its stamp on the publisher.
“A total of eight editors-in-chief have now been dismissed or pushed out since Orlen acquired the publishing house in March, with other editors and journalists at Polska Press titles across the country resigning in recent weeks,” the International Press Institute said in June.
Poland has come under fire from the European Parliament and other EU institutions for curtailing media freedom. It’s also fallen sharply in the World Press Freedom Index compiled by the NGO Reporters without Borders, dropping to 64 out of 180 countries from 18 in 2015.
But Morawiecki made clear the government isn’t backing away from its idea: “A serious country shouldn’t be like a passive leaf in the wind, where whoever blows means we have to follow.”