Polish lawmakers debate contested media reform bill

Polish lawmakers debated on Wednesday an amendment to the Broadcasting Act that would introduce a ban on non-European ownership of domestic media as the Sejm, lower house, decided to progress on to the second reading of the controversial bill.

The draft amendment, tabled by MPs from Law and Justice (PiS), the dominant party in Poland’s United Right coalition, specifies that only entities headquartered in European Economic Area (EEA) countries can be granted a broadcasting licence, provided they are not dependent on entities from outside the EEA.

Discovery, a US company, is the owner of TVN, Poland’s largest independent television channel, which has been critical of the Law and Justice-led government. Many observers believe the amendment to the media bill is aimed at silencing the station. TVN24, a news channel owned by TVN, has been trying to renew its licence since February 2020. Its current licence expires on September 26.

A prominent ruling party (PiS) MP, Marek Suski, said in the Sejm on Wednesday that his party will submit amendments to the contested bill, extending the transition period, so that a "certain station (TVN - PAP) can adjust its shares to Polish regulations."

Suski argued that the media regulations in other countries were stricter.

"No one is accusing the governments of our friends from the European Union of a lack of freedom of speech," he said. "All countries defend their media market against excessive participation of external capital, because the media market is a very important condition of freedom," he added.

Suski was challenged by Borys Budka, the head of the parliamentary caucus of the main opposition Civic Coalition bloc.

"And you talking about freedom of the media? You're just afraid of the media," he said, adding that the ruling party was following such "role models" as the Russian, Belarusian and Turkish presidents, Vladimir Putin, Alexander Lukashenko and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Budka also accused Law and Justice of risking a conflict with the US by forcing changes in the so-called media law, thereby endangering Poland's security.

Suski said that PiS believes that the US, "a bastion of democracy and the rule of law, will not draw any consequences in the interests of a company that breaks Polish law."

Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus, from the Left party, said that if PiS is allowed to pass the bill, the party will also come up with regulations to take over media with Polish capital.

"Tomorrow they will knock on (news portal) Onet and (private broadcaster) Radio Zet, and the day after tomorrow they will submit a proposal that cannot be rejected to (news portal) Wirtualna Polska and (private television) Polsat, and the proposal will be: 'either sell out or we will finish you'."

The leader of the agrarian Polish People's Party (PSL), Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz, said the draft of the so-called media law will harm Poland's relations with the United States.

"They will classify us the same as Belarus and the like. Relations will be frozen, maybe the troops will be removed. And you say it's about security. We'll say to you: I'm checking," he said.

Kosiniak-Kamysz added that to check the credibility of PiS, his caucus will also submit one amendment "concerning the countries that are to be covered by this ban."

"We are proposing to exclude countries belonging to NATO from this set, as the organisation is the guarantor of our security," he said.

Last week, a group of prominent US senators warned the Polish government against passing the legislation, which they say would impede Polish-US trade and defence ties.

On Tuesday, thousands of people protested across Poland in defence of media freedom, objecting to the draft legislation.