Poland defies US, EU by passing contentious media law

Protesters hold up signs with the letters of Poland's main private TV network TVN, a US-owned broadcaster, as they demonstrate in Warsaw on August 10, 2021. (JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP)

Poland risks undermining relations with the US and further antagonizing the European Union after the ruling party pushed through a controversial media law in 24 hours of political drama.

Parliament’s lower chamber voted 228-216 late on Wednesday to approve the legislation, which ostensibly is designed to protect broadcasters from non-European takeovers. Yet it targets Discovery Inc, the American owner of Poland’s largest private television network, and would force it to sell. The bill now goes to the Senate.

The move has been criticized by US senators, the US State Department and the EU as an attempt to muzzle independent media. Before the vote, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki fired his deputy, Jaroslaw Gowin, the leader of a smaller party in the governing coalition and an increasingly vocal opponent of the Law & Justice leadership

The move has been criticized by US senators, the US State Department and the EU as an attempt to muzzle independent media. Before the vote, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki fired his deputy, Jaroslaw Gowin, the leader of a smaller party in the governing coalition and an increasingly vocal opponent of the Law & Justice leadership.

Discovery appealed to Poland’s Senate and President Andrzej Duda, a ruling party loyalist, to stop the law. The company said it was discriminatory and called it an attack on freedom of speech. “The outcome should also be deeply concerning to any enterprise investing in Poland,” it said.

Morawiecki on Thursday called criticism of the media law misguided since the rule didn’t aim to clamp down on “any specific TV channel.“ Meanwhile, Vera Jourova, the European Commission vice president in charge of values, chided Poland for taking steps toward reining in “media pluralism and diversity of opinions.”

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The episode puts Poland at another critical juncture as the now minority government may have to rely on more radical nationalist forces for support. Along with Hungary, the EU’s biggest eastern state has been in conflict with Brussels in recent years over the independence of judges and the media, yet Law & Justice played up close ties with its NATO allies in Washington.

Morawiecki has said the legislation showed Poland was finally standing up for its rights after decades of passively accepting the international order.

“What the Law & Justice is doing lacks any sense and shows it’s a party of ideologues, focused entirely on domestic politics where strategic concern plays a secondary role,” said Marcin Zaborowski, policy director at GlobSec think-tank in Warsaw.

The vote was delayed after opposition parties won a motion to adjourn the sitting of parliament until next month. That was then annulled by the speaker on the basis that she had made a mistake when announcing the motion, triggering an outcry from the opposition, which accused the ruling party of breaking parliamentary protocol.

US Relations

Separately, lawmakers approved another contentious bill that would make it more difficult for Holocaust survivors to recover property seized by the Nazis on Polish soil. The move drew condemnation from Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. The US urged Poland’s president not to sign the law.

Under President Joe Biden ties have cooled, with American officials speaking out on the erosion of Poland’s democratic system, its approach to LGBTQ+ rights and, most recently, the unclear fate of investments in the ex-communist country.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said before the vote that the US was closely following the events in Warsaw and called on authorities there to respect common values.

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“The transatlantic alliance is based not only on mutual interests when it comes to our shared security but also mutual commitments to shared democratic values,” Price said. “We have urged the government of Poland to demonstrate its commitment to these principles.”

European Money

The exit of Gowin, the pro-business deputy prime minister, meanwhile raises the profile of far-right lawmakers who have questioned the merits of EU membership.

Law & Justice’s remaining partner in the coalition is a small group allied with hardline Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who wanted Poland to veto the EU’s virus recovery package last year and has broached the topic of the country leaving the 27-nation bloc.

“Gowin’s dismissal could radicalize the government,” said Barbara Brodzinska-Mirowska, a political scientist from Torun University.

Poland has been the biggest net recipient of EU money, getting more than 130 billion euros (US$152 billion) since it joined in 2004 that transformed the economy. Yet concern over the erosion of rule of law in Poland and Hungary have led to threats of delay payouts from the region’s pandemic stimulus fund.

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The EU’s executive arm has held up approval of Poland’s COVID-19 recovery plan, putting 23.9 billion euros of stimulus grants earmarked for Warsaw at risk. Money from the bloc’s massive 800 billion-euro recovery package has already started flowing.

Election Question

During the media law vote, several fringe parliamentarians backed the government, while an anti-EU party abstained. While Law & Justice garnered enough support behind the law, the prospect of a minority government longer term has raised the question of early elections.

Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski — the most powerful politician in the country — said in April, though, that he doesn’t predict a new ballot before the scheduled vote in late 2023. A lot may depend on how he assesses the revival of the opposition under Donald Tusk, the former EU president who returned to the front line of Polish politics this year.