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Poland’s lower house of parliament has passed a controversial bill that could force a US media group to sell its controlling stake in Poland’s main independent broadcaster, drawing censure from Washington.
The bill, put forward by MPs from the conservative nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS), would prevent companies from outside the European Economic Area from owning a majority in Polish media companies.
The legislation is widely seen as an attack on TVN, a broadcaster owned by the US media conglomerate Discovery, which provides often critical coverage of the government.
It comes amid a broader dismantling of checks and balances under the PiS government, which has neutered the country’s Constitutional Tribunal, tried to purge the Supreme Court and introduced a disciplinary regime under which judges can be punished for the content of their rulings.
Discovery condemned the bill’s passage as “an attack on core democratic principles of freedom of speech, the independence of the media” and said it was “directly discriminatory against TVN and Discovery”.
It also appealed to Poland’s Senate and president, who must also approve the bill, to prevent it from becoming law. “Poland’s future as a democratic country in the international arena and its credibility in the eyes of investors depend on this,” Discovery said.
The pressure on TVN, which is one of the biggest US investments in Poland, threatens to strain ties with what Poland’s government regards as a crucial ally.
Antony Blinken, secretary of state, said the US was “deeply troubled” by the draft legislation, saying it would significantly weaken Poland’s media environment and could undermine the country’s investment climate.
“Large US commercial investments in Poland tie our prosperity together and enhance our collective security,” he said in a statement following the vote.
MPs from PiS claimed the changes to the media law were necessary to prevent companies from undemocratic states from taking control of Polish media groups.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, PiS leader, claimed on Saturday that Poland had to protect itself from the entry of money launderers and “narco-businesses” into the media sector.
However, the bill is opposed by most opposition groups as well as by the Agreement party, which for the past six years had been one of PiS’s two junior coalition partners.
On Wednesday, the party pulled out of the coalition after Mateusz Morawiecki, prime minister, sacked its leader, Jaroslaw Gowin.
Gowin had clashed with Morawiecki over various issues including the media bill, which he has warned 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”.
Agreement’s departure deprived PiS of its formal parliamentary majority, raising questions about the reduced coalition’s ability to pass legislation. These were quickly underscored during a turbulent parliamentary sitting on Wednesday, in which the opposition initially succeeded in passing a motion to postpone the vote on the media bill until September.
However, the Speaker of the parliament, Elzbieta Witek, who is a PiS MP, subsequently said the vote on the postponement would be rerun. PiS won on the second attempt, before prevailing in a vote on the media bill itself.
The change to Poland’s media law was the latest in a series of moves by PiS that have undermined media freedoms and helped push the country from 18th to 64th in the World Press Freedom index, below Malawi and Armenia, over the past half-decade.
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.
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.
During the same sitting on Wednesday night, Poland’s parliament also passed a bill that will reduce the scope for property restitution claims, which had also drawn criticism from the US and Israel.
“We urge that president [Andrzej] Duda not sign the [restitution] bill into law or that, in line with the authority granted to him as president, he refer the bill to Poland’s constitutional tribunal,” said Blinken following the vote, adding that the US was “deeply concerned”.
“These pieces of legislation run counter to the principles and values for which modern, democratic nations stand,” he added.
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington