Poland’s ruling coalition shaken by spat over media law

Poland updates

Poland’s conservative nationalist coalition faces a big test of its viability on Wednesday after one of its three parties quit ahead of a vote on a controversial law that could force a US media conglomerate to sell a controlling stake in Poland’s main independent broadcaster.

MPs are due to vote on Wednesday afternoon on a bill that would prevent companies from outside the European Economic Area from owning a controlling stake in Polish media companies.

The legislation is widely seen as an attack on TVN, a broadcaster that is owned by the US media conglomerate Discovery and which provides often critical coverage of the government.

MPs from Law and Justice (PiS), the largest party in the ruling coalition, claim that the changes to Poland’s media law are necessary to prevent companies from undemocratic states taking control of Polish media groups.

PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said on Saturday that Poland had to protect itself from the entry of money launderers and “narco-businesses” into the country’s media sector.

But Agreement, one of PiS’s two coalition partners, opposes the bill. Its leader, Jaroslaw Gowin, said on Monday that the new law would hurt Poland’s image, damage its investment climate, and “above all expose us to a completely irrational fight with our main security guarantor, the US”.

On Tuesday evening, Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said he would sack Gowin, with whom he has also clashed over planned tax raises. On Wednesday morning, Agreement said that it would leave the coalition.

The departure of all of Agreement’s 13 MPs would mean that the coalition would lose its parliamentary majority, which until yesterday stood at just two. PiS officials said on Wednesday that they hoped some of Agreement’s MPs would continue to work with the government, and claimed that they still had the votes to pass the media bill.

Most opposition parties have said they will vote against the bill. But PiS expects to gather enough votes from smaller groupings including the far-right Confederation party to secure its passage.

The proposed law, which sparked protests in towns and cities across Poland on Tuesday evening, is the latest in a series of moves by PiS that have undermined media freedoms and helped push the country from 18th to 64th place in the World Press Freedom index — below Malawi and Armenia.

Since coming to power in 2015, PiS has reduced the public broadcaster to a claque, used a state-owned oil group to buy up a swath of local media outlets, and funnelled advertising from state-owned companies to supportive media groups.

It comes amid a broader dismantling of checks and balances under PiS, during which the government has neutered the constitutional tribunal, tried to purge the Supreme Court, and introduced a disciplinary regime for judges that allows them to be punished for the content of their rulings.

Poland’s media watchdog has also failed to issue a decision on the renewal of the broadcasting licence for TVN’s main news channel, TVN24, even though the application was submitted 18 months ago.

The pressure on TVN, one of the biggest US investments in Poland, has drawn growing criticism from Washington. Last week, a bipartisan group of US senators issued a statement expressing deep concern at “the Polish government’s continued democratic backsliding”.

“We are monitoring legislation under consideration in the Polish parliament that, if passed and signed into law, would discriminate against non-EU companies and likely force out of Poland a major US investor employing several thousand people,” they said.

“Any decision to implement these laws could have negative implications for defence, business and trade relations.”

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