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Poland: PiS accelerates repolonization drive with passing of ‘Lex…

Poland: PiS accelerates repolonization drive with passing of ‘Lex TVN’

IPI urges Senate and president to reject amendment to media ownership law that targets critical broadcaster.

The IPI global network today expressed deep concern over the passing by the Polish parliament of an amendment to broadcast media law which threatens the independence of the country’s largest private television broadcaster, TVN. IPI urges stronger action by the U.S and European Commission to defend media freedom.

On August 11, lawmakers in the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, voted by a majority of 228 to 216 to approve the so-called “lex TVN” bill, with 10 abstentions. The amendment to broadcasting rules is aimed at forcing U.S.-owned Discovery to sell its controlling stake in TVN, whose influential all-news channel TVN24 and flagship evening news program have long held a critical editorial stance toward the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

“The passing of this anti-TVN law by the Sejm is a significant step forward in the ruling party’s multi-year effort to muzzle one of its biggest media critics and the most disturbing attack yet on independent media in Poland”, said IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen. “This law has always been about one goal: slicing through TVN’s ownership structure, opening the door to government-allied entities to acquire stakes, and ultimately engineering a shift in editorial position to one more favourable to PiS. These calculated efforts to push out foreign capital and ‘repolonize’ the media landscape ahead of legislative elections are right out of the Fidesz playbook in Hungary. This is media capture in action.

“Despite the setback last night, this fight is far from over. We urge the Senate to firmly reject this law in its current form. In this event, lawmakers in the Sejm must then put party politics and personal interests aside and vote for the good of Poland’s democracy. If the Sejm again votes to pass the amendment, the responsibility to veto will ultimately fall on Polish President Andrzej Duda. The stakes are high: if passed, this law would simultaneously shred Poland’s reputation as a welcome climate for foreign investment and deliver another serious blow to media pluralism and media independence.

“In the meantime, we urge the U.S. State Department to double diplomatic efforts to oppose this bill and defend TVN’s independence. Both U.S. interests and values are threatened. The European Commission also cannot stand idly by as a main source of independent news and information for millions of Poles is brought to heel by PiS. Formulaic statements by EU officials are not enough: words must be followed by concrete action to engage with Warsaw. If TVN and TVN24 are muzzled, it would be a devastating blow for media pluralism and a clear signal that no private media in Poland is safe from PiS’s interference.”

Dramatic day in Sejm

The passing of the law followed a dramatic day in the Sejm. After a heated initial debate, MPs voted to refer the draft amendment back to the Parliamentary Committee on Culture and Media to consider new proposed amendments, which would have protected U.S. investment in TVN. The Committee, which is controlled by lawmakers from PiS and its allies, swiftly rejected the amendments proposed by opposition parties.

With the bill returned to the lower house, debate resumed on the floor while PiS politicians ramped up negotiations behind the scenes to secure the required majority. As the atmosphere became more tense, a proposal to postpone the session until September was passed by a slim majority of MPs. Protesters gathered outside parliament began to celebrate and opposition lawmakers welcomed the adjournment as a victory. Jubilation soon turned to dismay, however, as inside the Sejm PiS lawmakers demanded that the vote be repeated.

Following a long break, the speaker, Elzbieta Witek, a PiS member, returned to the chamber and ordered that parliament be reconvened for a second vote on the motion, explaining that she had forgotten to specify the date of the next session. Despite outrage and accusations of foul play from opposition lawmakers, the adjournment vote was held again and the motion was rejected by 229 to 225, after MPs from the Kukiz’15 party switched sides. With scenes inside the chamber became increasingly chaotic, the original vote on lex TVN was held and PiS succeeded in securing the required majority.

The vote also capped a dramatic few days in Polish politics, during which the PiS-led majority government suffered a major setback after Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki dismissed the leader of a junior coalition partner, Agreement, from the government over his vocal criticism of the media law. In the wake of the vote, more than 800 journalists in Poland signed a statement in defence of TVN’s independence and protests against the law were held in more than 80 towns and cities across the country.

The amendment would prevent non-European owners from having controlling stakes in Polish media companies. As U.S.-based Discovery owns TVN through a subsidiary registered in the Netherlands, it would fall foul of the new regulations and could be faced with selling 51 percent of its stake in TVN, which is valued at around $1 billion. If it did not, channels such as TVN24 could be stripped of their media licenses. The law comes as TVN24 awaits a decision on the renewal of its current 10-year media license, which expires in September.

Ahead of the vote, IPI, the partner organizations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) and other leading press freedom groups wrote to members of the Sejm urging them to oppose the draft law.

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Poland: open letter to the Sejm in ‘lex TVN’…

Poland: open letter to the Sejm in ‘lex TVN’ matter

To: All Members of the Sejm of the Republic of Poland

Dear honourable members of the Sejm:

The undersigned international press freedom and journalism organisations, members of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), are writing to ask you to urgently oppose the draft law that would restrict media ownership in Poland by investors based in countries outside the European Economic Area (EEA).

As you know, this bill has been termed the ‘lex TVN’ because it would directly affect TVN, Poland’s largest private television broadcaster, which is owned by the U.S. company Discovery through a subsidiary. We are extremely concerned that this bill is a targeted effort to force Discovery to sell TVN and thereby achieve a shift in TVN’s editorial line.

The stakes here are high. Our organizations have previously expressed serious concern over the deteriorating condition of media pluralism in Poland, which has already been deeply compromised at the regional level through the sale of Polska Press to PKN Orlen. Still, at the national level, Poland has thus far managed to retain a degree of media pluralism and independence, both of which are essential conditions for democracy and rule of law.

However, the approval of the ‘lex TVN’ would change that. The effort to bring TVN’s nationwide channels under control is a dramatic attack on media pluralism. If successful, it would accelerate media capture conditions similar to those in Hungary or Russia, where the vast majority of mainstream media is controlled by the state, directly or indirectly, and where cronyism is rife. It would also seriously damage foreign investors’ trust in fair market competition and the rule of law in Poland.

Indeed, this proposed law has already generated international alarm. In particular, top U.S. officials, including the heads of the Foreign Relations Committee of the U.S. Senate, have expressed grave concern over the effort to rein in TVN.

The decision to vote against this bill should not be about whether one agrees or disagrees with TVN’s coverage. It is about the core principles that are the foundation of Polish democracy. It is about the right of Polish citizens to receive information from different and diverse sources. It is about the fundamental right of the media to analyse and scrutinize the actions of those in power. And it is about ensuring fair market conditions in the media sector, in particular to protect Poland’s reputation as a trustworthy country for investment.

Laws restricting foreign ownership of the media are not necessarily problematic, and do exist in other EU member states. This measure, however, does not appear to be a principled effort to protect the Polish information landscape. Rather, it is clearly aimed at one particular media outlet, owned by a company based in the U.S., a long-time Polish ally, and is being rushed through the legislative process.

Your voice is critical in this urgent matter. If Poland is to remain a society where news and policies can be freely debated within the marketplace of ideas, it is essential that the ‘lex TVN’ be stopped. We therefore urge you to oppose this bill in its current form.

Signed by:

  • Article 19
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT)
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Poland: Stronger U.S. and EU action required over ‘lex…

Poland: Stronger U.S. and EU action required over ‘lex TVN’

The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today calls for swift and robust action by the European Union and U.S. to defend media freedom in Poland and counter the serious attack on the independence of the country’s largest private television channel, TVN, by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Our organisations believe that the so-called “lex TVN” and the ongoing deadlock over the renewal of the license for its 24-hour news channel TVN24 are part of an increasingly systematic effort by PiS to erode critical journalism by engineering ownership changes of critical independent media ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections.

On 7 July, PiS MPs submitted a draft bill to parliament which would bar companies which are majority-owned by entities from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) from owning more than a 49% stake in Polish broadcasters. It is clear this bill is aimed directly at the ownership structure of U.S.-owned TVN and TVN24, which broadcast the country’s most-watched news program, Fakty, and have long held a critical editorial stance towards PiS.

As U.S.-based Discovery owns 100% of TVN through a subsidiary registered in the Netherlands, it would be forced to sell 51% of its $1 billion stake to comply with the new regulations. This would open the door for state-linked investors to purchase the shares, muzzling the country’s most influential critical broadcaster and increasing the government’s level of control over the media market. A similar pattern has already been seen in the purchase of regional publisher Polska Press by Poland’s state-controlled oil company.

We are increasingly concerned that, despite warnings by officials at the U.S. State Department and top EU officials, PiS’s leadership appears determined to push ahead with its plans. On 27 July, the draft bill was adopted by the parliamentary committee for culture and media, paving the way for a vote in the Sejm in mid-August. Given the speed with which PiS are driving the bill through parliament, diplomatic efforts must be immediately intensified to send a clear signal to the ruling party that the EU and U.S. are serious about defending independent journalism in Poland with all available tools.

Top officials in Washington must stress unequivocally that the passing of this bill is an attack on independent media, as well as on American investments in Poland, and would significantly damage U.S.-Polish relations and cooperation in a range of fields.

At the same time, Poland’s broadcast media regulator, the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT), remains in deadlock over the renewal of TVN24’s 10-year media license, which expires on September 26. Despite applying for the permit 18 months ago, KRRiT’s five-member panel remains divided on the case, increasing uncertainty for TVN and leading to accusations the decision is being deliberately delayed. Recently, the head of the broadcast regulator, a former PiS member, alleged that TVN24 was in violation of foreign ownership rules, ramping up the pressure further.

Given PiS’s long hostility towards TVN and the fact that the broadcaster has had no issues in renewing licenses of several of its other Polish channels, any decision by the government-dominated KRRiT to reject TVN24’s license renewal at the current time should be considered deeply discriminatory and politically motivated. In this event, the European Commission should immediately consider launching infringement proceedings against Poland over the violation of EU law on the fair and non-discriminatory allocation of broadcast licenses.

Moving forward, our organisations urge Polish MPs – especially those in PiS’s coalition parties in the United Right – to vote to reject this bill during the next hearing. Moreover, while the open letter by Polish journalists in defence of TVN is an important initiative, it is crucial that journalists from across Poland’s media spectrum sign and speak in a unified voice. A political attack on one media outlet should be opposed as an attack on all. Ultimately, if TVN can fall to PiS meddling then no media outlet is safe. Time is running out.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19
  • Committee to Protect Journalists
    European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
    International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
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Poland: Independent media under attack again as PiS moves…

Poland: Independent media under attack again as PiS moves against TVN24

Draft bill plans to limit non-European ownership of Polish media

The International Press Institute (IPI) today expressed grave concern about draft legislative proposals by lawmakers from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party which would ban non-European ownership of Polish media and warned that the changes are targeted directly at U.S.-owned critical broadcaster TVN24, the country’s most watched news channel.

IPI said the draft media bill was the latest element in an increasingly systematic effort by the ruling party to erode critical journalism, stressing the plans should be met with forceful opposition by both the U.S. government and the European Union.

The draft bill, which was submitted to Parliament on July 7 by a group of PiS lawmakers, would amend Article 35 of the Broadcasting Act to bar companies which are majority-owned by entities from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) from owning more than a more than 49% stake in Polish media.

TVN24 and its parent company TVN have been 100% owned by U.S.-based Discovery, Inc. since 2015 through a subsidiary registered in the Netherlands, to meet current requirements under Polish law. If approved, the new regulation would strengthen those restrictions to ban Discovery from owning TVN through its Dutch subsidiary.

This means Discovery would have six months to adjust and could be faced with selling 51% of its stakes in TVN, which is valued at around $1 billion. If it did not, TVN’s channels such as TVN24 could be stripped of their media licenses by the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT).

The draft legislation comes as TVN24 awaits a decision by KRRiT on the renewal of its current 10-year media license, which expires in September. Despite applying for the permit 18 months ago, the five-member panel of the broadcast regulator remains divided on the case, creating pressure on the broadcaster on two fronts.

“If this bill is passed, Discovery would either be forced to sell off its shares in TVN24 to another company – very likely one more amenable to PiS – or stripped of its media license and be eliminated from the market”, IPI’s Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “This bill is an outrageous effort by the Polish government to silence a major television news broadcaster because of its critical content. It is a direct attack by an EU member state on media pluralism and an unmistakable sign that Poland is pursuing a Hungary-style form of media takeover.

“Not content with having independent regional media bought up by the state-controlled oil company, PiS is now moving to the next stage of its so-called ‘repolonisation’ project by going after TVN24. This tactic of pressuring or forcing foreign companies to sell up and leave the domestic market is not about principle. It is an effort to concentrate media control in the hands of PiS. It is also a hallmark of the media capture model honed by the Orbán government. When foreign or independent owners are pushed out, companies linked to the ruling party step in, buy up the company and then flip its editorial line, silencing critical voices and destroying watchdog journalism.

“The case of Klubrádió in Hungary has made it clear how a mixture of regulatory and legal tools can be effective in blocking the license renewal of a leading broadcaster and forcing it off air. We cannot watch in slow motion as the same thing happens to TVN24 in Poland. The EU must be ready to launch immediate infringement proceedings against Warsaw if the media regulator ends up blocking the license in a discriminatory manner. The U.S. government should increase its efforts to make it clear to its Polish ally that any attempt to interfere with independent media would seriously damage relations. The Biden administration must follow up its rhetoric about standing up for democratic values and a free press with concrete actions.”

Pressure on critical broadcaster

A key player in the Polish broadcast news market for nearly 20 years, TVN24 has long been a thorn in the side of the ruling PiS party, particularly on coverage of issues such as LGTBQ rights and abortion reforms. It has also revealed irregularities and alleged corruption and broken news of scandals in Law and Justice. This has made it a key target for the party when it swept to power in 2015. Immediately, leading PiS officials launched attacks on TVN and accused it being biased and siding with the opposition.

After the U.S. media conglomerate Discovery, Inc. bought TVN and its all-news channel TVN24 in 2015, the station then became a key target of PiS’s plans to bring the country’s media back under Polish control. This drive for so-called “repolonisation” of media has been framed by the government as an issue of national sovereignty. In reality, the efforts are aimed at cementing greater control over the media landscape.

In recent years, PiS has floated the idea of passing legislative changes to limit the amount of foreign capital in the domestic market, which would have affected Discovery. In response, the then U.S. ambassador under former President Donald Trump came to the defence and diplomatic pressure played a part in forcing the Ministry to shelve the plans.

The current bill appears to be targeted directly at TVN24. Currently, Polish law says that foreign companies outside the EEA can only be granted a broadcasting license for media if they own less than 49 per cent of the shares. However, there is a clause which means this rule can be waived if the headquarters of the direct shareholder of the media outlet is located within the EEA. TVN and TVN24 are owned by Discovery via its subsidiary Polish Television Holding BV, which is registered in the Netherlands, an EU member state, meaning it abides by Polish regulations.

In the past, this has been sufficient for KRRiT, the broadcast media regulator, which has extended licences for other TVN channels since 2016. However, recently the head of KRRiT, Witold Kolodziejski, has said that TVN24 is in breach of foreign ownership rules and called for the laws to be strengthened. Kolodziejski is a former member of the PiS party. The new draft amendment would remove the clause in Article 35 of the Broadcasting Act which includes the waiver for foreign companies with subsidiaries, meaning Discovery would be affected.

The direct attack on Discovery’s ownership has ruffled U.S. feathers. In response, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, Bix Aliu, has expressed serious concern, tweeting: “TVN has been an essential part of the Polish media landscape for over 20 years. Unfettered press is crucial for democracy.” Polish media reported that the comment came after behind-the-scenes efforts by the chargé d’affaires to meet with KRRiT were rebuffed.

Since the bill was proposed last week, leading PiS figures have come out in support. In media interviews, PiS officials have framed it as bringing legislation into line with other EU member states and closing a loophole in the current law. In a written justification, PiS MPs wrote that the bill was “aimed at clarifying regulations” and enabling KRRiT to “effectively counteract” foreign companies controlling radio and television broadcasters.

Others have been more candid. One of the MPs who submitted the bill, Marek Suski, told Rzeczpospolita that Discovery would “probably have to sell some of its shares” in TVN if the legislation is passed. Asked if state-owned firms could then seek to buy the station, Suski said he “cannot rule it out”. In separate remarks, Suski said that “if this law is successfully passed and some of these shares can be bought by Polish businessmen, we will have some influence on what is happening on this station.”

Last week, Kołodziejski, confirmed at a parliamentary committee that the regulator has been analysing whether TVN should be counted as a non-EEA entity. KRRiT’s five-member council is currently divided over the case. At least a 4:1 majority is needed to approve the renewal or denial of the new 10-year license. This renewal process has been ongoing for a year and a half. KRRiT’s spokesperson has justified the delay by saying the regulator needed more information about the merger between Discovery and WarnerMedia.

The draft text of the bill was swiftly submitted to the Sejm with no advance warning for PiS’s coalition partners. One of them, Agreement (Porozumienie), has raised concern about the bill and noted that the party had not been consulted. The party’s spokesman Jan Strzeżek said on Twitter that he would “not want to wake up in a Poland where there is only one TV station. Media pluralism cannot be legally limited”.

Vera Jourova, vice president of the EU Commission and its commissioner for values and transparency, said: “The new draft Polish law on broadcasting concessions is yet another worrying signal for media freedom and pluralism in the country. We follow closely the situation related to TVN24 whose license has not been renewed yet.”

In response, Discovery has said it would “defend the business against growing regulatory overreach, anti-consumer behaviour and other market uncertainty that would undercut Poland’s business environment”. TVN has more than a dozen television channels in Poland, as well as an online video platform. If the license is not renewed by September 26, TVN24 would have legal options to fight the decision. However, this would mean it would celebrate its 20th anniversary of operations in Poland in a fight for survival.