In a chaotic session and with little support (228 in favour, 216 against), Poland’s lower house, the Sejm, passed a bill on Wednesday that would make it impossible for non-European media to operate in Poland. The plan of the conservative-nationalist ruling party PiS is broadly formulated against all foreign influence, but is specifically aimed at a specific television channel: the PiS-critical news channel TVN24, owned by the American Discovery.
Nationally and internationally, critics see the law as the nail in the coffin of Polish media freedom. The Polish rulers defend their plan, arguing that other European countries, especially France, have similar protectionist media laws.
The plan is part of the ‘repolonization’ of the media, as PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski advocates: his party is increasingly strengthening its grip on the media. When Kaczynski came to power in 2015, the state broadcaster TVP – which had never been truly independent before – was transformed into a permanent propaganda channel. A lot of airtime is spent on denigrating judges, migrants, LGBTI people and most recently the returned opposition leader Donald Tusk, who was previously EU president. In addition, the government gives subsidies and advertising money to media that support PiS. Meanwhile, independent newspapers and broadcasters are struggling. Earlier this year, the state oil company Orlen took over almost all local newspapers and replaced quickly afterwards editors-in-chief by PiS stalwarts. Now it’s the TV market’s turn.
Implementation not yet guaranteed
In the past six years, Poland fell from 18th place to 64th place in the media freedom ranking by the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) publishes annually. On Tuesday, demonstrations against the new media law were held in several Polish cities.
Also read: ‘Soon we will only have propaganda in Poland’
Despite the vote in favor of PiS – which lost a key coalition ally this week – the law’s implementation is not yet guaranteed. After consideration by the Senate, a second round of voting will take place in the Sejm. It cannot be predicted due to the fickleness of various members. It is also unclear what will happen in the meantime with the broadcasting license of TVN24, which expires at the end of next month.
If the law becomes a fact, the channel will only be able to continue if it is sold to a European party. The question is who else than a government-supported Polish party still dares to invest in the media market there. TVN has several channels in Poland, the news channel has a market share of almost 5 percent.
Quarrel within the coalition
PiS MP Marek Suski, one of the proposers of the bill, defended it as a buffer against future Russian and Chinese control over Polish channels. “This is intended to protect the Polish market,” he said on Wednesday. “Not for the destruction of TVP.” In fact, however, that is the only broadcaster that is affected by the measure.
A quarrel within the governing coalition, which includes two other small right-wing parties in addition to PiS, ran ahead of Wednesday’s vote, to the point that Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Gowin was removed from office. As a result, the coalition lost its majority in the Sejm and made itself dependent on small opposition parties and independent parliamentarians to get the law through. Opposition parties initially managed to prevent this and postpone the vote to September. But in the course of the evening, PiS still managed to gather enough votes to push through the law.
The media law is not the only issue where PiS fails to keep all the frogs in the wheelbarrow. Opinions also differ in the coalition on the rule of law and the conflicts with the European Commission on this matter. Just like about the best use of the money from the European recovery fund. But the opposition, bolstered by the comeback of former Prime Minister and President of the European Council Donald Tusk, is also unable to form a bloc and force early elections for the time being.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of August 12, 2021