Poland Passes Media Law that Threatens Press Freedom
After two days of political turmoil, the Polish Parliament passes a controversial media law that could further repress press freedom in the country – despite initially planning to suspend the vote after ruling coalition collapsed
The Polish Government passed a vote on a controversial new media law despite fears it would fail to get a majority to pass a bill that would ban businesses from outside the European Economic Area from having controlling stakes in Polish media companies.
The vote took place after Prime Mister Mateusz Morawiecki fired Jarosław Gowin, the leader of the smaller Agreement party that was a partner in the ruling coalition.
The Agreement Party pulled out of the coalition following Gowin’s sacking. However, even without Agreement’s support, the bill passed by 228 votes to 216.
Poland has been governed by the right-leaning United Right coalition. Law and Justice (PiS) is the largest party; alongside Gowin’s more liberal Agreement; and the hard-right United Poland, led by Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro.
Explaining Gowin’s departure, Government spokesperson Piotr Müller told Polish press that “we [were] observing with concern the actions taken by Jarosław Gowin; undermines the actions of the Government and the Polish Order”.
Following Gowin’s departure, former Polish Prime Minister and former European Council President Donald Tusk said that the Government “is now fit for only one thing: resignation”. Tusk was active in the 1980s liberation movements for Polish independence.
In the day after Gowin’s sacking it looked like the vote would be suspended in order to avoid defeat after the Government lost its majority. However, the bill was pushed through in what is a renewed attack on press freedom in the country.
Prior to the vote’s suspension, Müller had expressed confidence the coalition would find enough MPs to pass the law and thereby avoid a snap election. “I’m not convinced we’ve lost our majority,” he added.
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Freedom of the Press
The passing of this controversial bill will intensify the ongoing row about press freedom in Poland.
The new law bans companies outside of the European Economic Area from owning a majority stake in media companies and is generally considered to be an attack on the TVN broadcaster, owned by US company Discovery.
TVN is one of the few remaining independent news channels left in Poland. At protests in Warsaw against the proposed law, 66-year-old Iwona Leliwa-Kopystynska told Reuters that, if TVN loses its licence, “it’s the end – there is no democracy, no freedom of speech”.
Journalist and author Anne Applebaum tweeted that if the law passed, “Poland can no longer be considered a democracy”. Following the vote, she tweeted “the vote was illegal, and on many grounds will be challenged in court”.
More than 750 journalists published an open letter criticising the proposed law. In it, they said that they will not “allow the destruction of media freedom in our country” and called for “the international public to intervene”.
“Neutralising TVN and making it subordinate to the state is one of the final stages of taking control over the last institutions that keep an eye on the Government and defend democratic values,” the letter said. “If the Government silences an inconvenient medium, this will also be the fate of other free media. This battle can’t be lost.”
In the US, the White House made its displeasure known in advance of the vote, with a bipartisan group of senators saying that “any decision to implement these laws could have negative implications for defence, business and trade relations”. They urged the Polish Government to “pause before acting on any measure that would impact our longstanding relationship”.
The Polish Government has defended the law. Prime Minister Morawiecki told a press conference on Tuesday that it is designed to prevent companies from “Russia, China or the Arab countries” from buying Polish media organisations.
However, an amendment proposed by Gowin to allow countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to do so – which would include the US – was denounced by Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Law and Justice and Poland’s de facto ruler.
Kaczyński called the idea of an OECD company buying Polish media “funny” and claimed that the risk would be “enormous” and include “money laundering, entering the Polish media of the drug industry”.
Since Law and Justice came to power in 2015, press freedom in Poland has been severely weakened. Last year, state-controlled oil refinery company PKN-Orlen bought huge chunks of regional media – leaving very little room for a press that is willing to criticise the Polish Government.
Reporters Without Borders now ranks Poland 64th in its press freedom index – in 2015 it was ranked 18 in the world.