RSF asks Polish president not to sign draconian “Lex TVN” bill into law
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on Polish President Andrzej Duda to veto a media law amendment that would enable the government to take control of TVN, Poland’s leading independent TV network. Passed by parliament last week, the amendment restricting foreign ownership of Poland’s broadcast media would force TVN’s American owners to sell their controlling stake in the broadcaster.
Update: President Andrzej Duda announced on Monday, December 27 that he had vetoed an amendment to the media law that could allow the government to take control of the first independent media group, TVN. Good news for the hard-hit press freedom in Poland.
Thousands of protesters calling for “free media” marched through Warsaw on Sunday, 19 December, two days after the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) ignored Senate objections and held a rushed final vote on the “Lex TVN” bill in the Sejm, the lower house, catching the opposition unawares on the eve of the parliamentary recess.
This controversial amendment to Poland’s Broadcasting Act effectively bans non-European companies from owning Polish broadcast media and would in practice force Discovery, a US multinational that owns many TV broadcasting companies around the world, to shed its controlling interest in TVN.
On the pretext of combatting foreign interference in the Polish media, the amendment places restrictions on the provision of broadcast media licences to media companies with shareholders based outside the European Economic Area.
Any media company with more than half of its shares owned by persons or entities outside Europe would not be allowed to broadcast in Poland. The government says it wants to protect the Polish media landscape against hostile actors from such countries as Russia. But Discovery, a US company, is the only foreign actor that is currently affected by the new law,
Within six months of the bill being signed into law by the president, Discovery would have to sell the majority stake in TVN that it indirectly owns via a Dutch subsidiary. The change of ownership would threaten the editorial independence currently enjoyed by TVN’s channels, especially the news channel TVN24. Unlike Poland’s public broadcaster, which serves as the government’s mouthpiece without batting an eyelid, TVN’s very popular channels carry independently reported news and question government policies.
Denouncing the bill as “an unprecedented attack on the free media,” Discovery said it “will use all legal means to ensure that the mission of our media in Poland continues” if it is signed into law. The likelihood that the acquisition of Discovery’s majority stake in TVN by Polish businessmen would influence the editorial content of its channels is acknowledged by Marek Suski, the Law and Justice party representative who drafted the bill.
“Repolonising” the media and foreign interference
“Combatting disinformation from abroad on national security grounds is just a pretext for passing a law that, in reality, has just one goal – to take control of TVN because of the independence it displays,” RSF spokesperson Pauline Adès-Mével said. “This bill is part of the ‘repolonisation’ policy aimed at making privately-owned media adopt a pro-government line. We urge President Andrzej Duda not to sign it into law.”
The Law and Justice strategy of “repolonising” the media has included repeated political meddling in privately-owned media outlets with the aim of influencing their editorial policies. After the leading provincial press group, Polska Press, was acquired by the government-controlled petroleum products company PKN Orlen, it had to fire four editors in May and replace them with former public TV journalists closely aligned with the government, as RSF reported at the time.
The government and its allies also resort to intimidation and abusive lawsuits designed to silence media outlets regarded as overly critical, such as the Warsaw daily Gazeta Wyborcza, currently the target of more than 55 lawsuits.
As part of the fight against the gradual takeover of Poland’s media, RSF and 16 other press freedom watchdog NGOs addressed a joint letter to President Duda on 21 December calling on him to veto the anti-TVN law on the grounds that it poses a “fundamental threat to media freedom and pluralism in Poland.”
Since Law and Justice became the ruling party again in 2015, Poland has fallen 46 places in RSF's World Press Freedom Index and is now ranked 64th out of 180 countries.