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Poland is bracing for more political upheaval as the country’s parliament today begins debate over a controversial foreign media ownership bill that critics say is aimed at disenfranchising TVN24, the last remaining source of independent broadcasting news in the country.
There were widespread demonstrations in support of TVN24 on Tuesday night in Warsaw and 80 other towns and cities across Poland against the bill, ahead of the debates. The demonstrations were led by the Committee for the Defense of Democracy and supported by several press freedom and human rights groups which see the latest measures as part of a crackdown by Poland’s right-wing government, not just on freedom of speech but also more broadly on the rights of women and LGBTQ+ citizens in the country. Protesters chanted the slogan: “free media, free people, free Poland.”
Hundreds of Polish journalists and editors have also signed an open letter calling on the government to halt “the destruction of media freedom in our country.”
The bill, introduced by Poland’s ruling party, Law and Justice, would prevent non-European ownership of Polish media companies. The government has used national security as the reason for the bill, arguing that it is necessary to protect Polish media from Russian, Chinese or Arab investment.
“We need to protect Poland against the entry of various entities from countries that are hostile to us,” Marek Suski, a member of parliament for Law and Justice, told AP.
But the main consequence of the law, if it is passed, would be to force U.S. broadcaster Discovery Inc. to sell its majority stake in the TVN group, which operates TVN24. Valued at around $2 billion, TVN represents the largest U.S. investment in Poland.
Discovery, which is in the midst of negotiating its mega-merger with WarnerMedia, expected to close mid-2022, applied to renew its current 10-year media license for TVN 18 months ago. But the company is still waiting for approval from Poland’s National Broadcasting Council. Discovery’s license for the channel is set to expire on Sept. 26.
“The politicization of the license renewal for TVN24 to operate is a real concern, so is the vote that will take place in the Polish parliament this week — not just to us as a company, but to the Polish people, to the Polish economy, and to any company investing in Poland,” Jean-Briac Perrette, president and CEO of Discovery International said in a statement. “The rule of law and free media is a crucial part of every democracy, and we will continue to strongly defend TVN’s role as the country’s leading independent news provider. An unpredictable regulatory framework should be very concerning for all potential investors in the market. I hope that Polish regulators and politicians will eventually share this view.”
Many observers are drawing comparisons between the Polish law and similar anti-foreign-ownership laws passed in neighboring Hungary which, critics claim, have helped Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban consolidate his grip on power and eliminate media critical to his regime.
“If the bill passes, we will likely cross the point of no return toward a kleptocratic autocracy. The ruling party promised us Budapest and it is delivering,” tweeted Radosław Sikorski, a Polish politician and Member of the European Parliament.
If passed, the bill could strain business and political relationships between the U.S. and Poland as well as put the Polish government on a collision course with the European Union.
The debate over the new law could even threaten the future of Poland’s three-party coalition government. On Tuesday, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Law and Justice, fired his deputy, Jarosław Gowin, the leader of the junior coalition member Accord, for criticising the law, prompting the party to formally leave the government.
The opposition Civic Platform, led since July by the former Polish prime minister and European Council president Donald Tusk, is looking to use the issue of media freedom as a wedge to divide the governing coalition.
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