Brussels urged to intervene in Poland media takeover row

Polish media group Agora has called on the EU’s competition supremo to speak out against the “unjustifiable” blocking of its deal to take over rival Eurozet as concern grows over press freedom in the central European country.

In a letter to Margrethe Vestager seen by the Financial Times, the president of Agora’s management board, Bartosz Hojka, alleges that Poland’s competition authority blocked the deal in a politically motivated move that he said was “unlawful”.

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Agora, the publisher of Gazeta Wyborcza, one of Poland’s largest daily newspapers, bought a 40 per cent stake in the radio group Eurozet in February 2019 and applied for permission to buy the remaining 60 per cent later that year.

But the country’s competition authority argued that the transaction would restrict competition and blocked the move in January this year.

“We are genuinely convinced that the decision is unjustified,” wrote Hojka, adding that it was in line with the government’s “anti-free media policy” and that the decision violated the “principle of independence” of a competition watchdog.

Agora has been a fierce critic of the country’s ruling Law and Justice party and its policies, he wrote in the letter, dated March 29.

The letter comes amid mounting concern about the pressure on independent Polish media. Earlier this year, the government proposed a tax on advertising revenues, sparking furious protests from media groups which denounced it as an attempt to cow independent journalism.

That furore followed the purchase last year by PKN Orlen, a state-controlled oil refiner run by an ally of the ruling camp, of Polska Press, a media group that publishes 20 of Poland’s 24 regional papers.

The battle over the Eurozet deal comes after Vera Jourova, the EU’s vice-president in charge of values and transparency, said there was a “need for better financing and a stable economic situation for the media” in Poland and Hungary.

Executives at Agora, which has appealed against the Polish decision, are also expanding their lobbying efforts. Hojka is expected to meet senior EU officials in the coming days, said multiple people in Brussels with direct knowledge of the matter.

It is unclear whether Brussels has any appetite to intervene. Agora fell short of asking Brussels to seek to overturn the decision, but instead asked Vestager to “express reservations” about the blocking of the deal and to stress the importance of the independence of competition watchdogs in the bloc.

The letter also said the move to block the Polish media deal “constitutes an unprecedented and worrisome breach of procedural and material standards . . . and may compromise the uniform application and lawful enforcement” of competition rules in the EU.

Hojka said merger control laws in the country are being used to “achieve political goals” and that the competition watchdog was being used to block vocal critics of the Polish government.

A spokesperson at the European Commission confirmed it has received the letter and that officials were in contact with the company, adding that the deal was not big enough to be scrutinised by Brussels.

The spokesperson added: “The independence of national regulatory and enforcement authorities from political influence and market interest is a key principle of many EU legal frameworks. 

“More generally, we are following closely the situation of media freedom and pluralism in Poland.”

The Polish competition authority said it was in constant contact with the competition directorate in Brussels. “We thoroughly examined the potential effects of the concentration for competition protection — after presenting the objections, the acquirer did not constructively present proposals that would allow a conditional decision to be issued.”

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