Brussels has criticised Poland after MPs passed a controversial law on media ownership that its critics say is a threat to press freedom.
The contentious draft law, which needs the approval of the Senate and Poland’s president, would prevent non-European owners from having a controlling stake in Polish media companies. It has been widely viewed as an effort to silence an independent, US-owned television broadcaster that is critical of the government and has exposed wrongdoing by the authorities.
The legislation would push American company Discovery Inc. to sell its controlling stake in TVN, a network with many channels that operates Poland’s all-news station TVN24 and has a flagship evening news programme watched daily by millions.
The European Commission (EC), responding to the vote on Thursday, was critical.
“Media pluralism and diversity of opinions are what strong democracies welcome, not fight against,” said Vera Jourova, the EC’s vice-president for values and transparency.
The draft Polish broadcasting law sends a negative signal,” she added. “We need a Media Freedom Act in the whole EU to uphold media freedom and support the rule of law.”
Polish MPs passed the draft law after a chaotic day in parliament on Wednesday. The vote represents a success for Poland’s ruling conservatives, who had been engaged in a dramatic tussle in parliament. All this comes after two days of political upheaval that has seen the disintegration of the governing coalition.
The Law and Justice (PiS) party struggled to secure a majority to back the media ownership bill, which has major implications for the country’s largest remaining independent TV station. The vote was passed by 228 votes in favour to 216 against, with 10 abstentions.
As well as the EU, the bill has also been criticised by Washington and is seen as a major attack on media independence in Poland, already in the spotlight for reducing media diversity and judicial independence.
In a statement on Wednesday night, TVN said parliament’s decision constituted “an unprecedented attack against freedom of expression and the independence of the media”.
Parliamentary tussle over the bill
Initially, Wednesday’s vote was put off until September after an opposition motion calling for the postponement unexpectedly won a majority. Some opposition lawmakers rejoiced and said there was still hope to preserve media independence.
But amid a chaotic and emotional session, the parliament’s speaker Elzbieta Witek decided to repeat the process. The government won the day thanks to a change of heart from an anti-establishment group, Kukik 15, paving the way for the vote on the bill itself to go ahead on Wednesday night.
The dramatic moves in parliament came in the wake of the collapse of the ruling coalition in its existing form.
Poland’s small Accord party has formally left the ruling coalition after its leader Jaroslow Gowin — who opposed the media bill — was dismissed as deputy prime minister by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Tuesday. A junior partner in the United Right coalition until now, Accord has 13 seats in the 460-seat lower house.
Some opposition lawmakers, who believe the ruling party is dismantling democracy, expressed hope that it had lost its narrow majority in parliament needed to pass laws.
The government fought hard to secure backing for the media bill, expressing confidence that it would pass. Although some right-wing opposition lawmakers who appeared ready to support it initially backed out, the opposition abstained from the later vote, contesting its legality and accusing the speaker of breaching parliamentary rules.
Impact on independent media
The media bill has been viewed as a crucial test for the survival of independent news outlets in the former communist nation, coming six years into the rule of a populist government that has chipped away at media and judicial independence.
Aside from the legislation, the state broadcasting authority has for more than a year refused to extend TVN24’s broadcasting license, which expires in late September.
Protests against the media amendment were held in dozens of cities and towns in Poland on Tuesday. Speakers voiced their fear that eliminating TVN as an independent voice would bring back a level of censorship that many Poles still remember from communism.
The law is important for Law and Justice and its president Jaroslaw Kaczynski. PiS already controls the public TV service TVP — which has largely become a government propaganda tool — as well as much of Poland’s regional press via a state company.