Warsaw, Poland – The Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has declared a “press freedom state of emergency” in Poland, condemning a recently proposed law amendment that threatens TVN, the country’s leading independent broadcast media group.
“PiS is pushing an amendment to the broadcast law whose objective is clear: first weaken and then take control of the biggest source of independent news in this major EU country,” said Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk who headed a delegation that visited Warsaw last week.
“Attacking TVN means attacking press freedom in Europe,” Szalai added.
Poland’s ruling conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) recently sought amendments to the local Broadcasting Act in July, specifying that TV and radio license holders could no longer be directly or indirectly controlled by entities that aren’t in the European Economic Area.
Known as “Lex TVN”, the radical amendment to the country’s media law put a target squarely on Poland’s TVN Group and its news channel TVN24, owned by the US-based Discovery franchise.
While the the opposition-dominated Senate rejected the amendment on September 9, the controversial bill now returns to the Sejm, controlled by the ruling PiS party, which has the power to override the Senate’s objection and could approve the amendment as early as this week, claims RSF.
In the meantime, TVN24’s licence is set to expire on September 26 and its extension has so far been delayed by KRRiT, the agency that supervises Poland’s broadcast media, whose members have for the most part been appointed by the ruling coalition’s parties.
“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
“Repolonizing” Poland’s media landscape
Watched by some 4.5 million people daily, TVN24 indeed 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.
“The offensive against the TVN group is the latest stage in the “repolonization” of private sector media that the government has pursued this year, in which it has used the declared goal of combatting foreign meddling in the public debate as a cover for its efforts to get Polish media outlets to adopt editorial policies that give it more support”, explains RSF in a statement published on its website.
“TVN could suffer the same fate as Polska Press, the country’s biggest network of regional media outlets, which has not hesitated to fire critical journalists since its acquisition by the state-controlled oil company PKN Orlen”, reads the statement.
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.
PiS has indeed 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.
“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 U.S. President Joe Biden and the American media are following the issue closely,” said Derek Chollet from the U.S. State Department.
Since the PiS became the ruling party again in 2015, Poland has fallen 46 places in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index and is now ranked 64th out of 180 countries.