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Poland’s right-wing government won a narrow vote Wednesday to pass a controversial media ownership bill that, if it becomes law, could force Discovery channel to sell its Polish operation, TVN, which owns TVN24, the country’s largest independent news network.
Wednesday’s vote came after nationwide protests by free speech and human rights activists against the bill, which would strengthen a ban on non-European companies controlling Polish broadcasters. Discovery’s TVN would be the broadcaster most affected by the bill. TVN operates several channels in Poland including the popular all-news network TVN24, which has been more critical of the government than most of the local media. The American company Discovery Inc. controls TVN through a subsidiary registered in the Netherlands.
The fight over the bill caused a schism in Poland’s three-party government coalition. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, head of the leading Law and Justice party, fired Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Gowin, of the smaller Agreement party, after Gowin criticized the media bill. Agreement left the government, leaving Morawiecki without a majority in the Polish parliament. Law and Justice will stay in power unless it loses a vote of confidence, which would require a vote of two-thirds of the lower house.
The bill passed the lower house on Wednesday on a vote of 228 to 216, with 10 abstentions. To become law, it still has to be passed by the Senate, which is controlled by the opposition. If they reject it, as is expected, the bill will go back to the lower house where it will need an absolute majority to pass and be signed by Poland’s President Andrzej Duda.
In a statement, Discovery said it was “extremely concerned about the result of the vote” but that it remains “resolute in its defense of the rights of the Polish people and the TVN business.” Discovery said the new law was “an attack on core democratic principles of freedom of speech, the independence of the media and is directly discriminatory against TVN and Discovery” and that, through Wednesday’s vote, “Poland directly undermines the values that have connected Poland with Europe [and] uproots the foundation of the Polish-American relationship.” Discovery is appealed to the Polish Senate and to President Duda to “oppose this project and prevent it from becoming law. Poland’s future as a democratic country in the international arena and its credibility in the eyes of investors depend on this.”
The Polish government argues that the bill is designed to prevent countries like Russia and China from taking over local media but the opposition and critics say that it is clearly aimed a bringing TVN under the control of Polish owners who support the government. Viktor Orban’s right-wing government in Hungary pushed through a similar foreign ownership ban that many claim helped it consolidate its control over the media.
Poland is already on a collision course with the European Union after it challenged the supremacy of the European Court of Justice over its own laws. The European Court has demanded Warsaw suspend a disciplinary chamber that critics say the Law and Justice government has used to intimate judges to rule along the party line. Poland’s top court has said Poland’s Constitution gives its courts supremacy over the EU. Brussels has given Warsaw until Aug. 16 to comply with its ruling.
Both the Trump and Biden administrations have lobbied the Polish government to leave TVN alone, warning that moving against Discovery could put further American investment in Poland at risk.
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