Poland passes media law that threatens press freedom
After two days of political turmoil, Poland’s parliament passes a controversial media law that could further crack down on press freedom in the country – although it originally planned to suspend voting after the ruling coalition collapsed
Poland’s government has voted on a controversial new media law despite fears it won’t get a majority to pass a bill that would ban companies from outside the European Economic Area from having stakes majority in Polish media companies.
The vote took place after the dismissal of Prime Mr. Mateusz Morawiecki Jarosław Gowin, the leader of the small Accord party which was a partner in the ruling coalition.
The Accord Party withdrew from the coalition after Gowin was sacked. However, even without the agreement’s support, the bill passed by a vote of 228 to 216.
Poland was ruled by the United Right coalition. Law and Justice (PiS) is the largest party; alongside Gowin’s more liberal deal; and the far-right United Poland, led by Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro.
Explaining Gowin’s departure, government spokesman Piotr Müller told the Polish press that “we [were] observing with concern the measures taken by Jarosław Gowin; undermines the actions of the Polish government and order”.
Following Gowin’s departure, former Polish Prime Minister and former President of the European Council Donald Tusk noted that the government “is now fit for only one thing: resignation”. Tusk was active in the 1980s liberation movements for Polish independence.
In the aftermath of Gowin’s dismissal, it looked like the vote would be suspended in order to avoid defeat after the government lost its majority. However, the bill was passed in what is yet another attack on press freedom in the country.
Before the suspension of the vote, Müller had expressed his confidence that the coalition would find enough deputies to pass the law and thus avoid an early election. “I am not convinced that we have lost our majority,” he added.
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Freedom of press
The passage of this controversial bill will intensify the current row over freedom of the press in Poland.
The new law prohibits companies outside the European Economic Area from holding majority stakes in media companies and is widely seen as an attack on broadcaster TVN, owned by US company Discovery.
TVN is one of the few remaining independent news channels in Poland. During protests in Warsaw against the bill, Iwona Leliwa-Kopystynska, 66, said Reuters that if TVN loses its licence, “it’s the end – there is no democracy, no freedom of expression”.
Journalist and author Anne Applebaum tweeted that if the law is passed, “Poland can no longer be considered a democracy”. After the vote, she tweeted “The vote was illegal and, on many grounds, will be challenged in court.”
More than 750 journalists published an open letter criticizing the bill. In it, they said they will “not allow the destruction of media freedom in our country” and called on “the international public to intervene.”
“The neutralization of TVN and its subordination to the state is one of the final steps in taking control of the last institutions that monitor the government and uphold democratic values,” the letter said. “If the government silences a troublesome media, so will other free media. This battle cannot be lost.
In the United States, the White House made its displeasure known ahead of the vote, with a bipartisan group of senators saying “any move to implement these laws could have negative implications for defense, business and trade relations.” They urged the Polish government to “pause before acting on any measures that would impact our long-standing relationship”.
The four pillars of powerHow the ruling party in Poland Undermines freedom and democracy
The Polish government defended the law. Prime Minister Morawiecki told a press conference on Tuesday that it is designed to prevent companies from “Russia, China or Arab countries” from buying Polish media.
However, an amendment proposed by Gowin to allow countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to do so – which would include the United States – was denounced by Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of Law and Justice and Poland de facto rule.
Kaczyński called the idea of an OECD company buying Polish media “funny” and said the risk would be “huge” and would include “money laundering, entering Polish media from industry drug”.
Since Law and Justice came to power in 2015, press freedom in Poland has been severely weakened. Last year, the state-controlled oil refining company PKN-Orlen bought up huge chunks of regional media, leaving very little room for a press ready to criticize the Polish government.
Reporters Without Borders now ranks Poland 64th on its press freedom index – in 2015 it was ranked 18th in the world.
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