Poland: why is a new media law prompting street protests and outrage from the US?

The lower chamber of Poland’s national parliament has passed controversial changes to the country’s media law that impose heavy restrictions on the way broadcasting companies will be licensed.

Proposed changes mean that firms from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) cannot secure a licence to operate a TV or radio station in Poland. This is a change widely viewed as targeting TVN, which is the largest private TV network in the country, and in which the US-based Discovery, Inc. has majority shares.

TVN has been bidding to renew its broadcasting licence since February 2020 without success.

Questions have long been raised about whether the National Broadcasting Council was behaving with impartiality towards TVN. Some senior figures have openly voiced their opposition to granting the licence.

Then the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) mooted the surprising legislation. It made questionable claims that the changes were needed to protect the broadcasting market from players from authoritarian states or drug cartels. It was hard not to see the move as having questionable motives. Broadcasting markets in mature EU democracies, such as France, are able to heavily regulate foreign ownership without imposing exclusions on specific regions of the world.

Questionable motives, clear track record

In a recent article, we examined how media policy changes since 2015 are feeding the illiberal and anti-democratic trends in Poland. We argued that the new politics of public media regulations aids democratic backsliding. It is also fuelling the politicisation of public service media.

This new law is yet another example how strategic government practices are deployed to concentrate power into the hands of populist leaders. In Poland, that involved using rhetoric on national security, sovereignty and patriotism to silence opposition voices and undermine media freedom.

The PiS government began intervening in the public broadcasting sector almost as soon as it came to power in 2015. And in 2020 it took aim at the print market and created conditions for the state-owned company, Orlen, to buy the independent Polska Press.

Given this track record, it’s hardly surprising that this latest move has been so widely perceived as an attack on media pluralism.

The act has not yet come into effect since it still needs to be approved by Poland’s senate and president. And this is by no means a given. It was a struggle to get the changes voted through the lower house because the PiS has recently lost its majority after falling out with its coalition partner. The senate vote is provisionally scheduled for September 9 and 10 and will be an even bigger challenge since the PiS does not have majority in the upper chamber and the MPs of the far-right Confederation party are expected to abstain. That would probably block the act in its present form and potentially force the PiS back to the drawing board.

There are sure to be protests as the debate heads to the senate. This law is being seen not only as an example of the PiS tendency towards nationalism but also a neat way to boost its own political chances by reshaping the media landscape to the detriment of TVN, a network known for holding the PiS to account.

More broadly, the law is being seen as a key test in the PiS push to implement the illiberal governance model that has strained Poland’s internal politics and relations abroad, not least with the European Union.

The view from abroad

Relations with the EU and US were already tense but now run the risk of being thoroughly destabilised by this outright attack on foreign inward investment.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken has warned the law would “gravely weaken media freedom” while other US State Department representatives have expressed concern about the act arguing that TVN has been part of the Polish media landscape for two decades and that free news media is crucial for democracy.

Heightening the tension, Discovery Inc. has announced that it is to take legal action, claiming that it has been discriminated against by Polish authorities. According to its press release, Poland has broken the provisions of the 1990 Polish-American agreement on investment protection.

Meanwhile, the EU is aware that this law is part of a trend in recent years that has seen multiple central and eastern European states make moves against their national media. European Commission officials are seeking to draft a European Media Freedom Act in the spring in the hope of increasing transparency and accountability when it comes to control and media freedom within the EU. Such action may come too late for Poland’s TV and broadcasters but it could be vital if the Polish government decides to go after internet freedoms too.

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.