On August 11, the lower house of Poland’s parliament passed a contentious media reform bill that would ban non-European Union parties from holding a majority stake in Polish broadcasters or getting a broadcast license.
Critics accuse Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, whose right-wing nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) is behind the proposed law, of trying to silence the news channel TVN24, which has done some tough reporting on his government and faced fines and threats.
During an August 12 news conference, Morawiecki flatly denied targeting TVN, the channel's network.
“We do not have any intentions regarding a specific TV channel. It is just about tightening the regulations, so that there is no situation in which companies from outside the European Union would buy media in Poland,” he said.
That is misleading.
The legislation, if it becomes law, could force TVN24, which is owned by the U.S.-based Discovery Inc. to sell its majority stake in TVN, which is Poland’s biggest independent news network.
Thousands of Poles have protested the legislation, saying it is an affront to press freedom.
Morawiecki has said the proposed law is needed to prevent “Russian or Chinese media from taking over a Polish broadcaster”.
Perhaps. But the government has also had a habit of going after TVN24 and its journalists in recent years.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Paris-based advocacy group for journalists, reported that in 2018, Polish security officials slapped TVN reporter and videographer Piotr Wacowski with a bogus charge of spreading Nazi ideology.
“The pretext for this investigation was video footage of a Nazi salute that Wacowski gave to avoid arousing suspicion while doing an undercover report on a neo-Nazi gathering,” RSF noted. TVN labeled the accusation “absurd.”
A year earlier, Poland's National Broadcasting Council hit TVN with a $415,000 fine for its coverage of anti-government protests in the Poland parliament.The broadcaster was accused of compromising national security.
Both the case against Wacowski and the fine were later dropped. But TVN24 has been waiting for more than a year to receive a broadcasting license renewal from Poland’s media regulator. The deadline for the renewal is September 26.
The channel also has been at odds with ruling party policies – namely those concerning LGTBQ+ and abortion rights.
Poland’s ranking on RSF’s Press Freedom Index has steadily declined since 2015. It is currently ranked 64th out of 180 countries.
During an abortion rights protest last year, Polish police arrested Agata Grzybowska, an Associated Press journalist, for allegedly violating “the bodily integrity of an officer.” Grzybowska claimed that the authorities used undue force, which led opposition leaders and international human rights groups to condemn the police.
The Law and Justice party has said it wants to “repolanise” the media by encouraging the state to buy out as many media outlets as possible for “security reasons.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized the proposed law, saying it “targets the most watched independent news station, which is also one of the largest U.S. investments in the country.”
On August 12, Discovery Inc. threatened to take legal action against the Polish government on the grounds that the legislation violates a 1994 investment treaty between the United States and Poland.
Action on the media bill is pending in Poland’s Senate.