Poland’s political scenario has recently been shaken by the ruling party’s, Law and Justice (PiS), controversial new law on media funding and ownership. In mid-July, Law and Justice MPs submitted to the parliament (Sejm) a bill aimed at amending the existing Broadcasting Act in order to forbid entities from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) from majority-owning Polish radio and television outlets.
The main reason given for such amendment, consistent with Law and Justice’s line of thought focused on the concept of defence of sovereignty, was the protectionist necessity to prevent massive foreign interference in the Polish internal market. However, such an act has unanimously been interpreted as a politically motivated legal move aimed at drastically curbing the activity of TVN, the biggest private news broadcaster and one of the most-watched channels in Poland. TVN is clearly the main target of this motion since not only it belongs to the US-based Discovery media group, but it is also the most important channel conveying critical opinions with respect to the political discourse of the party in power, which in the past years has been aggressively striving to monopolise the national media scene by purposely marginalising the opposition’s voice. The new media law represents the ultimate attempt to silence disagreeing views with a legalised threat on media pluralism in a European country where the rule of law has been knowingly endangered since PiS’ first electoral victory in 2015.
The issue has been proved controversial not only for the strategy and intent behind it, but also for the way the lawmaking process was actually conducted. After PiS MPs submitted the bill on August 11th, the opposition presented a motion to adjourn the parliament session to 2nd September. The motion was successfully confirmed by the following voting session, where 229 people (mainly from Civic Coalition/KO, Lewica, Polish Popular Party and Kukiz’15) voted in favour of postponing and 227 (mainly from PiS) against, marking the first time the opposition was actually able to outnumber the ruling party in a voting procedure.
However, right after reading the results of the voting, Marshal of the Sejm Elżbieta Witek announced that it was necessary to repeat the voting. According to parliamentary rules, this procedure is only allowed in case of technical problems or reasonable doubt about the legal conduct of the previous voting operations supported by at least 30 MPs. There is, however, no room for doubt that this was not the case of that specific session, since no technical anomalies had been denounced or revealed, while defeated PiS is strongly believed to have pushed for a second voting in order to have a chance to win the motion over by looking for a greater support among minor parties which had previously voted in favour of postponing. As a matter of fact, the second voting overturned the first result: the motion was rejected because three representatives of the Kukiz’15 joined the “against” coalition. Significantly, when the leader Paweł Kukiz was asked about the change of vote, he simply replied that they “had made a mistake”, motivating many MPs to accuse him of “selling” his vote to Law and Justice’s cause and Marshal Witek of acting illegally to favour the ruling party’s position.
Since the opposition’s motion had ultimately been rejected, the voting session on the very amendment was then opened. The Polish lower house passed the anti-TVN law (lex anty-TVN), which obtained 228 votes in favour and only 216 against, dealing another blow to the quality of democracy in the country and drawing further condemnation both domestically and abroad.
Domestic and International Reactions
Over 260 Polish journalists and editors signed an open letter to show their solidarity with TVN. TVN director Michał Samul confirmed that the new law was perceived as an attack on the intellectual independence of the channel. He pointed out, in particular, that the amendment was proposed, not by chance, concurrently with the approaching deadline for the renewal of the Discovery’s licence, which had always been extended smoothly in the past years, but is now at serious risk. Such timing simply cannot be accidental. On the possibility to find other funders in compliance with the new media law, he stated that in any case “TVN’s independence will not be traded.” What is more, Samul also stressed the international repercussions of this law: according to him, the anti-TVN law “destroyed Poland’s position in Europe and in the world.”
The current developments in the Poland-EU and Poland-USA relations on the subject of freedom of press justify his evaluation. EU media reported with concern the news and vividly criticised the Polish government for deliberately threatening media freedom. The European Centre for Press & Media Freedom released a statement where the PiS bill was described as “part of an increasingly systematic effort by PiS to erode critical journalism by engineering ownership changes of critical independent media,” and pushed the EU and the US to properly address the issue. Discovery itself condemned the law as detrimental to “Poland’s future as a democratic country in the international arena and its credibility in the eyes of investors” and declared they were ready to take legal action. The US government is also taking a strong position against Poland, which has traditionally tried to maintain a stable pro-Atlantic international position: after the passing of the law, the Atlantic Council dedicated to the free media topic the very evocative title “Experts react: how far will Poland push away its friends?”, referring to the upcoming retaliation in terms of presumable dropping investments and political support.
Although one may say reality can be interpreted differently, numbers can give us a clearer vision of the actual situation. According to the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders, Poland was ranked 15th in the world for media freedom (the country’s highest ever position) in 2015. Six years of PiS government later, the country has fallen to the 64th position, right behind Armenia and Malawi and in front of Bhutan and Ivory Coast. On the other hand, the prelude of the worsening relations with the United States and Europe seems to be paving the way for a new chapter of the Polish foreign policy in which more than ever it is clear that the approach of state interests defence is in fact proving to be ineffective and potentially detrimental to the same national interests the ruling party is pretending to defend.
Edited by Stefan Pajović