On August 11th, the Polish parliament staged a shameful vote.
By 228 to 216, the members of the Sejm, Poland’s powerful lower house of parliament, approved a proposal that could drastically reduce freedom of speech and the press.
The proposal would force foreign owners of news broadcasting stations to sell a majority interest in their stations to Polish investors. The immediate effect would fall exclusively on a single channel: TVN24, an American-owned station, the last channel that still reports with objectivity and balance in a media landscape increasingly slanted toward Poland’s right-wing populist government.
The Polish Sejm’s vote is a clear test of the Biden administration’s commitment to elevating democracy over authoritarianism, which the president has made a centerpiece of his foreign policy. Should a government that hosts thousands of American troops on its territory — and seeks to have more of them — be tampering with the basic freedoms of its people?
The parliament’s move is especially poignant given Poles’ courageous fight against authoritarianism just a few decades ago. In the 1980s, as Warsaw bureau chief of ABC News, I covered the protests by the independent Solidarity trade union that led to the collapse of Communism. I watched many brave Poles go to prison — and some die — in their struggle for freedom of speech, democracy and the rule of law.
Back then, Poland led the way as Soviet-imposed communism was dissolved. Even ordinary Poles well understood that information was power. One soundman at Polish state television went to jail for two years for leaking to me a government-suppressed interview with the then-opposition leader, Lech Walesa, done in an internment camp. When finally released from prison, the soundman told me: “It was worth it; it was the least I could do for Poland.”
Today, members of parliament appear less interested in what’s best for Polish democracy than in what’s best for the ruling party and for the nation’s de facto leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a nationalist who, while nominally only a deputy prime minister, rules Poland from the shadows.
His party, the poorly named Law and Justice Party, is waging a long-term campaign both to reduce the independence of courts in Poland and to muzzle the media. The government holds a narrow majority in the Polish parliament, and appears to believe it can improve its chances of winning the next election by closing down or neutering media outlets which offer it less than full-throated support. In this, Kaczynski has styled his approach after the increasingly authoritarian tactics of Hungary’s leader Viktor Orbán, long a thorn in the side of the European Union and NATO.
The TVN24 channel now under attack was founded by an idealistic Polish businessman in the wake of the collapse of Soviet-imposed Polish Communism. At the time, it was part of a wave of new publications and electronic media started in the 1990s to inform newly empowered voters in a nation that rushed to embrace democracy, the rule of law and freedom of speech as Poland joined the NATO alliance and the European Union.
TVN24 is now the most popular news channel in the country. It does not take sides in Polish politics. “It is by no means an opposition medium,” writes Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who closely follows events in the former Soviet bloc. “It is simply a news network that does not say what the government wishes it to say.”
The channel is now owned by the U.S. company Discovery, which bought it in 2018 from another American company, Scripps Networks. Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party is using that foreign ownership as a pretext to try to destroy its independent editorial voice, by forcing Discovery to sell a majority share of the company to Polish investors, who can be more easily influenced if not cowed by the government, than foreign investors can. (Full disclosure: I am part of a group of present and former media executives and reporters advising Discovery on journalistic issues; the company did not request or review this article.)
The proposal now moves to Poland’s senate and to its president, for their consideration. Though it is likely to fail in the opposition-led Senate, under the Polish constitution the Sejm can override the Senate by a second majority vote, and is expected to do so.
Kaczynski’s government argues that by banning majority foreign ownership of media, it is simply copying the model of France, where majority foreign ownership is also not allowed. But France has a diverse media, and its law didn’t close a popular independent channel. The government also argues that the new rule is designed to prevent Russia or Chinese interests from buying Polish media, but in reality the new draft law would only affect one news outlet — and it isn’t owned by either of those countries.
The Biden Administration has strongly criticized the proposal, with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken saying the “draft legislation threatens media freedom and could undermine Poland’s strong investment climate.” But it’s not clear that public disapproval from the U.S. is doing anything to slow down the momentum in Poland.
So what is President Joe Biden willing to do to pressure an ally back onto the democratic path?
The White House has options for leverage, as does Congress. Poland depends for its security on membership in the NATO alliance under which the U.S. and other western nations are committed to defending Poland if it were ever attacked. That NATO alliance, Blinken noted pointedly, is “based on mutual commitments to shared democratic values and prosperity.”
Washington should make it clear to the Kaczynski government that if it no longer shares the values of freedom of speech, media pluralism and the rule of law that are the basis for our friendship and our alliance, there will be consequences not only in terms of American investment, but also in terms of American defense commitments. Such a threat may be the only way to get Kaczynski’s nationalist government to think twice about its moves toward autocracy.
In order to get Warsaw’s attention, it may even make sense for the Biden administration to delay a U.S. troop rotation or perhaps put a hold on a Polish purchase of American military weapons — though such a move must be carefully calibrated. Any such step should be a largely symbolic one that does not reduce necessary military capabilities, since the threat to NATO nations from Russia is all too real.
With media freedom in Poland now in serious question, Congress should also act. It could send a message that would resonate in Poland, by providing funds for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Voice of America to reestablish their broadcasts and websites in the Polish language, which were closed down after the Soviet Union collapsed. That would send as clear a message as any to Poles that their newly government-dominated media can no longer be trusted. (Reporting in Hungarian by RFE/RL has already been resumed.)
The private sector, too, should not remain silent while America’s largest business investment in Poland is under attack. U.S. companies such as Microsoft and Amazon that have, or are considering major investments in Poland, should publicly advise Warsaw that their future investment decisions will depend upon whether or not the Polish parliament’s blatant affront to democratic values is allowed to stand.
Biden has spoken clearly about the threat to democracy posed by adversaries such as China and Russia, but it is more difficult to confront errant friends and allies like Poland. Whether he does so effectively will be a telling indication of his true commitment to global democratic values.
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