Meet ‘Lex TVN’ Poland’s ruling party is pushing through a contentious media ownership law under the pretext of threats from ‘third countries’

Protesters holding up posters in support of TVN. Warsaw, August 10, 2021. Janek Skarzynski / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

A new media ownership bill put forward by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is stoking concerns about press freedom in Poland. The parliament’s lower house, the Sejm, passed the draft law in a scandalous vote on August 11. The law aims to impose restrictions on foreign ownership of Polish broadcasters, but critics argue that it targets one media holding in particular, whose television channels have taken a critical stance towards the current government. Members of the PiS insist the bill is a necessary safeguard against “third-country attacks” (apparently from the likes of Russia and China). That said, the legislation is in line with the ruling party’s long-running drive to take control of the media in Poland — a policy it’s pursuing at great risk. Indeed, disputes over the media ownership bill have already wreaked havoc with the ruling coalition. In a special report for Meduza, journalist Stanislav Kuvaldin explains why this contentious bill is a fraught endeavor for the Polish government. 

What happened?

Poland’s right-wing ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), has prepared controversial amendments to the law on the National Broadcasting Council (Krajowa Rada Radiofonii i Telewizji, or KRRiT), the body that regulates the country’s television channels and radio stations. The KRRit is responsible for ensuring compliance with the law and, together with the government, develops state policy towards the media. It’s also responsible for issuing broadcast licenses. 

The new amendments place restrictions on obtaining broadcast licenses in Poland for foreign media owners, but only under rather specific conditions. If it passes the Senate, the law will prevent foreign individuals and companies that are “dependent on another individual registered outside of the European Economic Area” from obtaining broadcast licenses in Poland.

In other words, foreigners and foreign companies will still be able to obtain broadcast licenses in Poland, so long as they are permanently based in a country within the European Economic Area — that is, in one of the EU’s 27 member states, or in Iceland, Liechtenstein, or Norway. 

Why does Poland need this new law?

According to the draft law’s supplementary note, these new regulations are needed to prevent companies and governments that pose a “serious threat to the national security of Poland” from controlling broadcasters. 

The supplementary note also mentions “so-called hybrid actions by third countries.” By all indications, these “third countries” are mainly Russia and China.

In late July 2021, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki explicitly stated that under the current laws, “media in Poland can be acquired by Russia, China, or some Arab countries.” During the consideration of the bill, parliamentary deputy Marek Suski — a PiS member — said that Poland has already been subjected to “attacks that can be called a hybrid war from one of our neighbors” (he didn’t specify which one).

Law and Justice party leader Jarosław Kaczyński (right). Warsaw, August 11, 2021. Law and Justice party leader Jarosław Kaczyński (right). Warsaw, August 11, 2021. Damian Burzykowski / Newspix / Zuma / Scanpix / LETA

Supporters of the new media bill have also brought up other alleged dangers that make its adoption urgently necessary. For example, Law and Justice party leader Jarosław Kaczyński spoke about the risk of money from drug trafficking infiltrating Polish media. He was the only one to make this outlandish argument. 

Why is the Polish opposition against it?

The bill’s backers would be much more convincing if they were able to point to an actual attempt by Russia or China to create a “hybrid warfare” television channel in Poland. There are no such examples so far. In fact, as opponents of the bill underscore, the law’s adoption would strip just one media holding of its licenses: TVN Group.

This media group owns a variety of Polish television channels, the most influential of which are the news and entertainment channel TVN and the 24-hour news channel TVN-24. Both channels have a liberal editorial stance and have criticized the Law and Justice party consistently.

The bill poses a problem for TVN Group’s channels, because the holding belongs to the U.S. media group Discovery, Inc., and is run by a Discovery subsidiary, the Netherlands-based Polish Television Holding BV. TVN-24’s broadcast license is already set to expire at the end of September 2021; the KRRiT has refused to renew it under various pretexts since last year. 

The amendments to the media law so clearly targeted TVN Group that other media outlets and opposition politicians began referring to the bill as “Lex TVN.” 

What’s in it for the ruling party?

Since coming to power in 2015, Law and Justice has pursued a consistent policy of increasing state control over Polish media. One of the ruling party’s first moves was to eliminate the relative editorial independence afforded to state broadcasters. In accordance with new procedures approved by the Sejm in 2016, the Ministry of State Treasury took full control over appointing the management and supervisory boards of state television channels and radio stations. As a result, state broadcasters saw a massive changeover in personnel and adopted a rigidly pro-government editorial stance. 

In 2020, Polska Press — a media group that controlled 20 of the country’s 24 regional daily newspapers, as well as several local television channels — fell victim to the ruling party’s campaign to “repolonize” the country’s private media. Taking an unexpected interest in the media market, the Polish state oil concern PKN Orlen purchased Polska Press from its German parent company, Verlagsgruppe Passau. This was followed by massive layoffs among the editors of the media group’s regional newspapers. Predictably, PiS functionaries maintained that the firings were simply a “business decision.”

Earlier this year, Law and Justice came up with an initiative to impose special tax on advertising in the media, on online platforms, and in movie theaters. Both opposition forces and independent media saw this as an additional tool for depriving indie outlets (especially those publishing online) of a significant portion of their revenue. 

Will the law be pushed through the Senate?

Until recently, Law and Justice could have pushed through a law like this one with little regard for the protests of the opposition. However, the ruling party’s position became more complicated after the 2019 parliamentary elections, when it lost control of the Senate — the parliament’s upper house. That said, opposition MPs control just 51 of the Senate’s 100 seats, which puts them at an unstable advantage.

Moreover, a split in the parliament’s ruling coalition has been taking shape since 2020. For example, one of Law and Justice’s junior coalition partners, the Agreement party led by Jarosław Gowin, strongly opposed the tax on the media. As a result, the initiative never made it to the Sejm. Gowin also said that he wouldn’t support Lex TVN. Then, in August 2021, the Agreement party left the coalition with the PiS — and Gowin himself was fired from his post as deputy prime minister.

Agreement’s decision to quit destabilized the coalition’s majority, forcing the ruling party’s MPs to make deals with other partners. One such deal helped push Lex TVN through the Sejm — but not without causing a scandal. On August 11, Polish MPs voted down a number of the ruling party’s initiatives and agreed to stop work until September. Deputies tried to adjourn the session, but a number of MPs from populist party Kukiz’15 unexpectedly announced that they had accidentally pressed the wrong button during the vote. During yet another recess, feverish negotiations took place between the ruling party, Kukiz’15, and other MPs who were on the fence. After cancelling the vote to break until September, the parliamentary session resumed and LEX TVN was passed by 228 votes to 216 (the Sejm has 460 seats in total).

The media ownership bill passed in the Sejm by 228 to 216. Warsaw, August 11, 2021. The media ownership bill passed in the Sejm by 228 to 216. Warsaw, August 11, 2021. Damian Burzykowski / Newspix / Zuma / Scanpix / LETA

In the aftermath of the vote, the opposition accused the ruling party of blatantly bribing MPs, and protesters took to the streets in Polish cities in support of TVN. However, it would appear that the bill is so important to Law and Justice and its leader Kaczyński that the party is prepared to push it through even if the bill costs them their reputation and the ruling coalition.

What will happen next?

Why the ruling party’s MPs worked to push through the media ownership bill at any cost remains an important question. Indeed, voting in the lower house of parliament is just the first step and since Law and Justice no longer controls the Senate, its influence going forward isn’t what it used to be. In all likelihood, the parliament’s upper house won’t pass the bill without significant amendments — as opposition senators have already made clear.

If the bill is returned to the Sejm, then it will have to be approved again by a 50 percent majority, meaning it will need at least 231 votes. This is no longer guaranteed to the ruling coalition.

In addition, the bill has caused noticeable tension in Poland’s relations with the United States. U.S. State Secretary Antony Blinken has already expressed concerns that the law threatens media freedoms and undermines the investment climate in Poland.

EU representatives, however, remain largely silent — despite numerous complaints against the Polish authorities regarding compliance with the principles of rule of law and their moves to strengthen control over the media. Only the European Commission’s Vice-President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová expressed her concern, and only on Twitter, at that.

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Story by Stanislav Kuvaldin

Summary by Eilish Hart


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