Poland’s ruling party rams through media law despite U.S. warnings

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Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party on Wednesday pushed through a media reform bill that critics say is aimed at undermining a U.S.-owned TV station that is critical of the right-wing government.

Washington has warned Warsaw not to proceed with the legislation, but Poland’s nationalist ruling party wasn’t deterred.

The bill proposes only allowing companies majority-owned by entities from the European Economic Area to hold broadcast licenses. That would exclude U.S.-based Discovery, owner of TVN, one of Poland’s most popular TV stations, and its all-news subsidiary TVN24. The news channel’s license expires on September 26. The channel is a thorn in the side of a government that has made great efforts to bring the media under its control.

The bill “is aimed directly at TVN, and is an unprecedented attack on freedom of speech and the independence of the media,” TVN’s management said in a statement after the vote, adding that it risks undermining 30 years of Polish-American relations.

Emotions around the legislation reached a fever pitch during the voting session in parliament, with MPs yelling and accusing each other of treason and corruption.

The bill is one of the causes of Tuesday’s collapse of the PiS-led United Right coalition, which fractured after Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Gowin was sacked from the government and pulled his small group of MPs.

That left the government without a majority in the 460-member Sejm, the lower house of parliament — forcing it to scramble for support among smaller groupings.

The fragility of its hold on power was laid bare when the government lost a procedural vote on Wednesday afternoon and the opposition managed to pass a motion to postpone the vote on the media bill until September. But the speaker of the Sejm, Elżbieta Witek, decided to hold the vote again, arguing she was justified in doing so in cases when the result of a vote “raises justified doubts.” She argued that the date of the delay wasn’t clear. 

Preceded by cries of “shame” from the opposition benches, the government narrowly won the second vote. The key shift was from three MPs belonging to a populist party created by former rock musician Paweł Kukiz, who said his group had made a mistake the first time around.

“I don’t have any doubt” that the parliament had the right to hold the vote again, government spokesman Piotr Müller said after the vote.

The opposition said the repeat vote was illegal and any decision made during parliament’s Wednesday session wouldn’t be binding.

“Holding this vote again is not only unfounded but it is also a breach of the law,” tweeted Grzegorz Schetyna, one of the leaders of the opposition Civic Platform party. “The speaker of the Sejm is responsible for this, disgracing the name of the Polish Sejm with her actions.”

The bill now heads to the Senate, where the opposition holds a narrow majority and will likely reject it.

“The democratic majority in the Senate will never approve an attack on media independent of the government,” Tomasz Grodzki, the speaker of the Senate, said on Twitter after the vote.

If the Senate votes down the bill, it would go back to the Sejm, which can overturn the veto with an absolute majority. That might be difficult since the right-wing Confederation party — which has 11 MPs — has already said they would abstain during a second vote. The bill still needs to be signed by the president, PiS ally Andrzej Duda.

Warsaw-Washington tensions

If the bill is approved, it’s likely to set off a fight with the U.S., Poland’s key NATO ally as well as a prominent investor.

Ned Price, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, said Wednesday that Washington is watching developments around the media bill very closely. “The government of Poland now has an opportunity to show in deed, and not only in word, that it stands by the values that unite our transatlantic alliance and the values that bind the United States and Poland.”

Last week, a bipartisan group of American senators said the bill “continues a troubling trajectory for Poland’s democracy” and “would further undermine media freedoms for which Poles have long fought.”

Marcin Zaborowski, policy director of Globsec, a think tank, said: “On the American side, the legislative and executive powers have made it clear to Warsaw that proceeding with this law won’t go without consequences to Polish-American relations. Pushing for the law regardless of these clear messages means that PiS doesn’t care anymore about maintaining a good relationship between Poland and the U.S.”

There have been reports in the Polish press that the U.S. may consider shifting some of the troops it has stationed in Poland to Romania.

Polish business also warned that, if passed, the bill could chill economic relations between the two countries.

“It is very probable that before any American company invests a single dollar in Poland, it will think about it 10 times,” Maciej Witucki, head of the Lewiatan business owners grouping, said in a statement.

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