Poland’s government sets its sights on private media

Since the re-election of Andrzej Duda as president in July, politicians from Poland’s conservative-nationalist ruling camp have made clear that reshaping the country’s private media is one of their priorities for the final three years of their term in office.

Law and Justice (PiS) politicians claim changes are needed because foreign media companies, including German, Swiss and US groups, own a string of Polish titles, and too few groups wield too much power. “The media in Poland should be Polish,” Jaroslaw Kaczynski, founder of Law and Justice, and Poland’s de facto leader, said shortly after Mr Duda’s re-election.

But PiS’s critics say that, with a couple of exceptions such as regional newspapers, Poland’s media is not over-concentrated. They see the plans as an attempt to stifle independent journalism. Since taking office in 2015, PiS has already sought to co-opt the public media. Executives fear that talk of reforming the private media is a shorthand for squeezing out critical reporting, as Viktor Orban’s government has done in Hungary.

During PiS’s first term, officials repeatedly raised the prospect of “repolonising” the foreign-owned media, or introducing caps on the share of Polish groups that could be owned by international entities. Since Mr Duda’s re-election, they have emphasised “deconcentration”, or imposing limits on the market share of a single group. Some have raised the prospect of media groups being forced to sell some of their existing holdings.

So far, however, no legislation has been put forward, amid divisions in the ruling camp about how to proceed. One problem is that such legislation would be hard to reconcile with EU law. Another is that the US, PiS’s most important ally, has made clear that it will vehemently oppose any changes which damage American interests, including those of TVN, an independent broadcaster that is PiS’s bête noire and which is owned by the US media conglomerate Discovery.

Yet media executives worry that even if no single “deconcentration law” emerges, PiS will find other ways to put pressure on the independent media, such as withholding state advertising or tweaking existing media rules.

“Deconcentration is a programme. It doesn’t have to be necessarily one single bill. At the end it’s about concentrating the media in the hands of PiS. This can be achieved in many ways,” said one senior media executive.

“What I think is that there will be a more piecemeal strategy of deconcentration on many fronts, to make it very difficult for independent media companies to thrive, or even survive . . . the blueprint is Hungary.”

Another possibility is that Law and Justice could use state-owned companies to buy up independent media. The Economist reported earlier this month that PKN Orlen, the state-controlled energy group, was in talks with Verlagsgruppe Passau to buy Polska Press which owns a string of Polish regional daily newspapers.

Media executives told the Financial Times they expected that Sigma Bis, a marketing agency owned by Orlen and the state-owned insurer PZU, could be used to buy up media groups. Orlen declined to comment. PZU did not respond to a request for comment.

Grzegorz Hajdarowicz, the founder and main shareholder of Gremi International, which owns the centrist newspaper Rzeczpospolita, said that he thought the noise around a possible deconcentration bill was designed to encourage owners to think twice about their holdings.

“I think that . . . what [the government] want to do in the end is make an offer and buy,” he said. “They want to make an offer and say: the situation is not stable . . . something can happen . . . why don’t you sell?”

Piotr Glinski, Poland’s culture minister, said earlier this month that state-owned groups “should” buy up media. But he insisted that this would not be “destructive for the media market” or create “some sort of monopoly”.

“Maybe [changes to the media market will happen] via a law, maybe ownership changes of a different type, but in accordance with the law and in a civilised fashion,” he told radio station RMF FM.

However, foreign media owners remain wary. Jean-Briac Perrette, chief executive of Discovery International, the owner of TVN, said that it was “proud” of TVN and “deeply committed to our position as [Poland’s] leading independent broadcaster”.

“We are also watching closely and will defend our business against growing regulatory risks and other market uncertainty that would undercut Poland’s growth and economic future,” he said.

Foreign investment groups are also on the alert. Earlier this year, a number of organisations representing foreign investors wrote to Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, expressing concern about the impact that any move that undermined investments already made in Poland would have on the country’s investment climate.

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