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Will US-owned TVN media be kicked out of Poland?

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Warsaw, Poland – The TVN24 television channel, Poland’s biggest private broadcaster owned by the US-based American Discovery Inc. franchise, will see its license expire next month.

Its extension has so far been delayed by the National Broadcasting Council, while a new bill submitted to Parliament additionally aims to limit foreign ownership of media operating in Poland.

Here’s why the fate of TVN24, and the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s self-declared goal to “repolonize” the national media landscape, is a matter worth keeping an eye on.

The decision not to extend the license of TVN24, a television channel often critical of the ruling coalition, is being seen by opposition politicians, rights groups and journalists as the government’s latest attempt to curb media freedom in a manner reminiscent of the tactics used by the government of Viktor Orban in Hungary.

Fate of US-owned TVN television station hangs in the balance

In a statement, TVN management said it would not “yield to any pressure” and “remain independent acting on behalf of our viewers”.

No extension is expected to be approved until the controversial bill is voted on. If passed, the amendment to the Broadcasting Act – nicknamed “lex TVN” – would keep investors from outside the European Economic Area from controlling or owning radio and television stations in Poland, de facto outlawing US ownership of TVN24.

Discovery Inc., which has had a 100% stake in TVN24 and its parent company TVN since 2015, would either be forced to sell its assets to another investor, or withdraw completely from the Polish market.

“In our opinion, the move to not extend TVN’s licence seems to be an attempt to put pressure on independent media,” reacted Wojciech Tumidalski from Press Club Polska, an independent association of journalists. “It is unacceptable to pass a law against a single economic entity that plays an important role in the media market and is simply an independent medium that challenges the government.”

The proposed legislative change has also sparked tensions with US officials in Warsaw and Washington. “Both US President Joe Biden and the American media are following the issue closely,” said Derek Chollet from the US State Department.

“A systematic effort to erode critical journalism”

Watched by some 4.5 million people daily, TVN24 carries significant weight across Poland, a country of 38 million, and is seen as one of the most influential media that remains outside the government’s control.

While the vote on the media law was scheduled for July 21, the parliamentary debate was postponed until August by the ruling PiS party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, itself facing the push-back from some of its allies and weakened with a wobblier-then-ever majority in Parliament. The Agreement party, headed by Jaroslaw Gowin and part of the ruling coalition, said he opposed the move, and instead suggested that Polish media companies could be owned at more than 49% by countries belonging to the OECD (including the US).

“If this bill is passed, Discovery would either be forced to sell off its shares in TVN24 to another company – very likely one more amenable to PiS – or stripped of its media licence and be eliminated from the market,” warned Scott Griffen, deputy-director of the International Press Institute (IPI). In a statement released ahead of the planned vote last month, the Vienna-based IPI described the media bill as “the latest element in an increasingly systematic effort by the ruling party to erode critical journalism”, drawing a parallel with the case of Klubradio in Hungary.

An intimidation tactic?

PiS has long made the “repolonization” of Poland’s media landscape one of its priorities and presented it as a matter of national sovereignty, but critics fear the catchy motto, popular among its conservative base, is only an excuse to curb media freedom and silence critical voices.

Earlier this year, influential publisher Polska Press was acquired by state-owned oil company PKN from its previous owner, Germany’s Verlagsgruppe Passau, virtually putting dozens of local and regional newspapers under state control.

A few days ago, over 260 journalists and editors from some of Poland’s biggest media outlets co-signed an open letter criticizing the government’s attacks on TVN and pledging to defend media freedom. “If the government puts a gag order on a broadcaster simply because it finds it reporting unfavourable, the same fate will await the rest of the free media”, the signatories wrote. “We cannot afford to lose this fight. It would be a defeat for democracy in Poland”.

Urging caution, other observers have described the refusal to extend TVN’s licence as an “intimidation tactic” which the government doesn’t have the political capital to carry through, and speculated that the tensions it’s creating – with the US and within the ruling coalition – appeared unsustainable and too big of a risk for Poland’s rulers.