What Does The New Television Law Say In Poland And Why Is It a Threat To Press Freedom?

The Polish Parliament approved this Wednesday by a narrow majority – 228 votes in favor to 216 against – a controversial law to regulate the country’s television networks. The bill, which still has a difficult path to come into force, has caused a serious government crisis, has aroused harsh internal and international criticism and has brought thousands of Polish protesters to the streets in defense of press freedom .

The law in question seeks to prohibit any company outside the European Economic Area from owning more than 50% of a television channel.

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The law has been dubbed by its critics as the TVN Law because they denounce that it has been designed ad hoc against TVN, the largest private channel in the country and owned 100% by a US company. Fakty, his evening news program, has been in the first half of 2021 the most followed in the country, above public television. TVN is a critical voice with the government led by the ultra-conservative formation Law and Justice (PiS).

“It is a law designed for TVN because there is currently no other television channel that falls under this legislation,” says Joanna Szymańska, member of the organization defending press freedom Article 19 and specialized in Central and Eastern Europe. The network has come under fire from the ruling party for its coverage.

The Polish government “follows the Hungarian and even the Russian scenario: it does everything possible to take control of the critical media. If this law comes into force, it expects that the American company that owns TVN will have to sell and that someone close to it will have to sell. PiS bought it, “according to Szymańska.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday that his government is “deeply concerned” by a law “that threatens the freedom of the media.”

The Government of Poland argues that this type of legislation already exists in other European countries and that its objective is to prevent enemy foreign powers, such as Russia or China, from taking control of television networks.

“Until now, countries like China or Russia have not wanted to buy media in Poland and if they really wanted to protect the media market of these two countries, there would be no need to try to do it as quickly as they are doing. The reason for their rush is that At the end of September, TVN24 – the network’s 24-hour news channel – has to renew its license. They want to pass the law before that to make it impossible for the network to continue broadcasting. There is no other logical explanation, “says Szymańska.

“In addition, the Government ignores that those similar laws that exist in other European countries were not approved to attack existing licenses. TVN has been operating for 20 years and suddenly it may no longer be able to do so.”

“This law is part of a broader strategy in relation to freedom of the press,” says the Article 19 expert. In fact, members of PiS have repeatedly mentioned the idea of ​​”repolonize” and “deconcentrate“the country’s media scene.

One of the The promoters of this idea have been Jarosław Kaczyński himself, president of the ultraconservative formation and perceived as the country’s shadow leader. “The media in Poland have to be Polish,” he said after last year’s elections after criticizing the coverage of some media. “We won despite a very tough campaign in which all the rules were broken. The attack against us was coordinated by a powerful media front also inspired from outside,” he said.

Critics of the government point out that this new law would open the way for a state-controlled company to take control of TVN and change its editorial line. And there are close precedents.

In December 2020, the powerful state oil refinery company PKN Orlen bought 100% of Polska Press (owned by a German company). Polska Press has 20 of the 24 regional newspapers in the country, in addition to 120 weekly magazines and 500 online portals.

“The Government now has unparalleled access to an average of 17 million monthly readers. Although the CEO of Orlen presents it as a simple business investment, it seems clear that its real purpose is to help the PiS nationalize the foreign press and put in check to the independent media, “said then Scott Griffen, deputy director of the International Press Institute.

Now the law has to go through the Senate, where it is likely to be rejected, as the ruling conservative coalition only controls 46 of the 100 seats. In that case, the bill would go back to Parliament, where it would have to receive an absolute majority –At least 231–. This is also complicated, and more so after the departure of the Agreement party from the ruling coalition. With the breaking of the Agreement, which has 13 deputies, the PiS maintains a simple majority of 198 of the 460 seats, although in total it controls 222 votes.

The crisis erupted this week, when the Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, dismissed the leader of the Agreement, Jaroslaw Gowin, who served as deputy prime minister in the Executive, for his “little loyal” attitude.

Gowin had claimed that the media law “clearly violates the principle of freedom of the press.” Until now, the deputy prime minister had also criticized the PiS economic program, denouncing that it would mean a tax increase for the middle class. Shortly after his removal, Agreement publicly announced his break with PiS.

In 2015, the year PiS came to power, Poland ranked 18th out of 180 on the Reporters Without Borders ranking for press freedom. Six years of the PiS government have taken it to position 64.

In RSF’s words, public television has become a “government spokesperson” that repeats “his hateful messages”. “The propaganda on this channel is incredible,” says Szymańska. “Sometimes I have the feeling that the Russian story is more sophisticated and its propaganda is more hidden than on Polish public television.”

“They attack opponents and activists. Many people believe that the reason why the mayor of Gdansk was assassinated in 2019 is because of public television, which launched hundreds of very aggressive attacks against him,” he says. “It has not been formally established because the Prosecutor’s Office is delaying the investigation, but that is the idea at a general level.”

Szymańska also denounces the government’s attacks on critical private media through the strategy known as SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) and whose objective is to silence them through legal processes.

“Article 19 has investigated this phenomenon and there are hundreds of lawsuits against journalists and media presented by the Government, members of the ruling party or companies controlled by the Executive,” he says. “For instance, Wyborcza Gazeta, which is the leading independent newspaper, currently has 60 lawsuits. The legal costs are enormous and it is becoming too much for them even though the courts are still fairly fair in these types of cases. The PiS has not yet succeeded in completely ending judicial independence. But that’s the strategy they use to attack these media that are too big and powerful to acquire. “

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