Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has passed a bill through the lower house of the parliament that effectively bars companies from outside the European Economic Area from owning media outlets in the country. The reform is widely seen as a tool to squeeze one specific media out of the market – a TV channel called TVN. This broadcaster is owned by the Discovery Network from USA and is often critical of the ruling party in its reporting. According to the suggested new rules, Discovery Network would have to sell its shares.
According to the PiS spokespersons, this media reform was meant to prevent hostile foreign powers from controlling Poland’s media landscape. Opposition calls the bill a threat to the freedom of the press and just another step in a lasting attack against independent media in Poland. To put things in perspective: since PiS came to power, Poland has dropped from 18th to 64th position in the Work Press Freedom Index-ranking, the country’s all-time low.
In 2015, for example, PiS reorganised the management mechanisms of the public broadcaster, TVP, to put it under the direct control of the government. In the following years, studies found bias in TVP’s broadcasting, in favour of the ruling party. Journalistic community was also shaken by massive purchases of independent media by state-owned companies: this potentially gives the government an unprecedented control of the media market. In one instance, hundreds of local newspapers and websites are now controlled by the state-owned oil company PKN Orlen that purchased the media firm Polska Press. It is estimated that the media in question reaches more than 17 million people.
Even though PKN Orlen claims to have purely business-related reasons for the purchase, many believe that the purchase is part of the state-driven attempt to clear the market of independent media. Poland’s vice prime minister Piotr Glinski said to media that “wherever it is possible, Polish state-owned companies should buy media”. Some of the other disturbing developments include a suggested new tax on advertising revenue, as well as redirecting of state-financed advertising to the loyal media outlets.
It is against this background that both national and international media organisations express concerns over Poland’s media freedom in the light of the new legislation. “In the current context of media ‘repolonisation,’ this amendment is in reality designed to allow the authorities to buy up media outlets via government-controlled companies,” spokesperson of Reporters Without Boarders Pauline Adès-Mével said. “It thereby threatens media pluralism and media freedom”. Vera Jourova, the EC’s vice-president for values and transparency, said that the new law “sends a negative signal”.
The new bill is to be voted in the upper house of the Polish parliament and signed by the president to be adopted. After the criticism from EU, USA, and numerous civil society organisations, Polish president Andrzej Duda said that “repolonisation” of the media should be carried out “on a market basis”, but compulsively. This statement has been perceived as a possible signal that the ruling party will back down on this specific bill – but probably not on their wider attempt to control the Polish media market.
Position of Fojo’s local partner in Poland, Stowarzyszenia Gazet Lokalnych
The Publishers’ Council of the Local Newspaper Association is concerned about the subsequent decisions of the state authorities, including parliamentary initiatives that undermine the independent media and freedom of speech in Poland. We regret to observe the selective treatment of fundamental values in the rule of law: without free media, there is no democracy, no free society, no free state.
We consider the actions of the National Broadcasting Council to delay the issuance of the license for TVN24 and the parliamentary bill, which, once passed, may result in the withdrawal of the TVN station license, as violating the foundations of media freedom, and thus in fact the foundations of democracy. The state and its institutions should be expected to obey the rules, and not to create laws for a given situation. We believe that putting barriers to free media is a practice inconsistent with the standards of a democratic state, which should protect independent newspapers, portals, radio stations and TV stations.
We appeal to the authorities of our state and all its representatives to abandon these practices. Free media is free Poland.