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Controversial Media Law in Poland Puts Leaders at Risk of Being Banned from US

| 2021-08-31 3 min read

Controversial Media Law in Poland Puts Leaders at Risk of Being Banned from US

Reading Time: 3 minutes

“Why risk a good relationship with the US and elicit yet another conflict with Brussels?” one might ask when pondering a bill, called “Lex TVN,” recently submitted to Poland’s parliament. One likely answer is that the Polish ruling party wants to secure its victory in the country’s next parliamentary elections by gaining control over the media. But the costs are high, and a diplomatic crisis is looming: the United States has threatened to impose severe sanctions if the law passes, including banning Polish politicians from entering the US.  

The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) used to have over 40% of the public on their side before the pandemic in Poland. However, according to the latest polls, their popularity has dropped to 33-35% in 2021. Still, they are the most popular party, but polls also show a rise in support for the opposition since Donald Tusk returned to Polish politics. 

According to former president Aleksander Kwaśniewski, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński is convinced that the media has a decisive role in determining the outcome of the elections and so it is crucial for the party to at least weaken their opponents within the media landscape, steeped in the belief that opposition media prevent the government from showing off its achievements – thus, the attempt to gain control over those organizations.

One significant move in that direction was the acquisition of German-owned Polska Press by the state-owned oil company PKN Orlen in late 2020. Polska Press used to own a large number of regional media portals and several regional newspapers. However, since PKN Orlen already owned the Polish newspaper distributor RUCH, the Warsaw District Court suspended the merger in April

The next maneuver was an amendment to the Polish Broadcasting Act submitted to the Polish lower house, the Sejm, this July, according to which only media whose majority stakes are owned by entities from the European Economic Area can be granted a broadcasting license in Poland. Although PiS argued that the bill was supposed to prevent foreign, possibly hostile powers from gaining control over Polish broadcasting media, it effectively impacted one of the biggest Polish television networks, TVN, which is fully owned by the American company Discovery. TVN is often critical of the government, therefore the Polish opposition, as well as representatives of the European Union and the US, criticized the bill as a threat to press freedom.

TVN is the largest ever US investment in Poland. Its owner, Discovery, has even threatened to bring legal action against the government in Poland and wants to commence an arbitration proceeding to “seek full compensation for Poland’s breaches.” 

The bill was passed by the Sejm with a slim majority, since PiS’ coalition partner, Agreement, was reluctant to support the bill. As a result, Jaroslaw Gowin, leader of the Agreement party and deputy PM, had been dismissed causing the coalition government to collapse. Currently, the ruling party is seeking support and a new coalition partner in parliament, but the Lex TVN crisis could easily lead to early elections in Poland.  

The bill is now before the upper-house Senate, which can delay approval by a month, but will eventually need to send it back to the Sejm. If confirmed again by the lower house, the bill will go to the president to be signed. Now all eyes are on president Andrzej Duda, who said in an interview to the state broadcaster TVP that although he agrees with the government’s intention to “re-Polonize” media, the proposed law would be “incomprehensible to our American partners.” He called the legislation “controversial” and said that Poland “must weigh our interests” before making such a decision.  

Kaczyński does need to weigh up possible dire consequences, as Washington has not only said it was “deeply troubled” by the controversial bill, but is also considering imposing sanctions on Poland. For a starter, Warsaw would not be invited to the summit of world democracies organized by US President Joe Biden in December. Even a deal on Poland’s purchasing Abrams tanks can be blocked.

However, the most severe and humiliating sanction from the US would be a personal ban imposed on president Andrzej Duda, prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki and PiS president Jarosław Kaczyński, from entry into the US. As a consequence, Duda would not be able to visit his American counterpart in Washington until the end of his term of office. President Biden is said to watching the events in Poland closely, and the issue is considered a priority for the US.  

Analysts and opposition politicians now assume that president Duda’s possible veto is a way out for PiS – giving the party an opportunity to back away from the bill without losing face. Others suppose that the veto would mean that Duda has ambitions to enhance his own political room for maneuver. But there are also those who believe that, in the end, Duda will not use his veto meaning the law will pass, something which would put the US and Polish governments at loggerheads for quite some time.