The independent media in Poland are slowly drowning. First it was the economic asphyxiation due to the cut in public advertising revenues, at the beginning of the year a tax on advertising profits and now an unexpected amendment to the Broadcasting law to limit foreign capital in the media. This measure, which does not affect EU-based media companies that want to invest in Poland, has been presented by legislators of the government Law and Justice (PiS) as a safeguard against (unlikely, according to analysts) interference from China and Russia in the Polish media landscape. For now, if it goes ahead, it would only affect the US-owned TVN group, although it is the main news channel critical of the Government.
The news of this channel have stood out for their research work. In 2018 they broadcast images of a gathering of Polish neo-Nazis celebrating Adolf Hitler's birthday in SS uniforms and swastikas. Among the participants, the personal assistant of a PiS parliamentarian was identified. The government's response? Accusing the television channel of "spreading hate." The chain, which has an estimated value of more than 1 billion dollars (about 843 million euros) and is the largest US investment in Poland, was also fined 330,000 euros for issuing protest images in Parliament. Again, he was charged with “promoting violent and illegal behavior”.
The amendment, presented by surprise at the beginning of July, establishes that “a license may only be granted to foreign entities whose headquarters or permanent residence is in a Member State of the European Economic Area”, which includes the countries of the European Union ( EU), Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Thus, media majority owned by a company from outside the EU will not be eligible for licenses.
The conservative and ultra-nationalist party argues that foreign companies have too much influence in the media sector, causing a bias in the public debate. But analysts see that this rule has a clear objective.
"Taking a look at the media landscape in Poland, this change would only affect the TVN group, including its independent news channel TVN24 – the largest and essentially the only remaining of these characteristics -", explains Szymon Ananicz, expert at the political analysis center. IdeaForum. And remember that the PiS legislator who introduced the project, Marek Suski, has publicly admitted that he wants a situation in which his party has some influence over TVN, a group that, in addition to the news channel, has a dozen other platforms and one of video on demand.
TVN24 is an outstanding source of information for many Poles. It employs about a thousand people and is seen daily by 4.5 million viewers, a not inconsiderable audience in a country of 38 million inhabitants.
Russia and China
Lawmakers try to allay suspicions about this reform and insist that it is intended to harmonize property rules with similar laws in other EU countries. But the PiS began long ago what the government itself defines as the "repolonization" of the media and both the European Union and the United States have expressed their concern. "The new Polish bill on broadcasting concessions is another worrying sign of the freedom and pluralism of the media in the country," warned the Commissioner for Values and Transparency of the European Union, Vera Jourova.
The Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, has appealed in his interventions to prevention. Imagine a situation in which a medium in Poland, be it a large portal, television or radio, or a large newspaper, was bought by a Russian, Chinese or Arab entity. Would we then, as citizens, have the right to say “no”? ”, He launched at a press conference, the day after the proposal was taken to the Sejm (Parliament). "We would like to have such tools, applicable to prevent such acquisitions," he added.
However, the need for this legal barrier is doubtful. "For years I have been a media lawyer and I have not seen any interest from Russians or Chinese in the Polish television market," says Karol Laskowski, a partner at the consulting firm Dentos, who has followed the evolution of the media sector in Poland. In this specific case, he agrees that “what they are trying to do here is create a situation in which they can somehow neutralize TVN”. And thus reduce critical voices.
In parallel, the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT) has to decide on the renewal of the TVN24 channel's license, which expires on September 26, a process that began 17 months ago, but has yet to respond. “This is a very significant US investment here in Poland. And perhaps, if the license is not renewed, there will be collateral effects on future US investments ”, warned the advisor of the US State Department, Derek Chollet, in an interview with TVN24, during his recent trip to the country.
The amendment to the Broadcasting law will be discussed in August. If the modification continues, the US group will have to sell part of its shares. Discovery owns the Polish channels through the Netherlands-based Polish Television Holding group. However, "the new condition includes that the company does not depend on a foreign entity whose permanent place of residence is not within the European economic zone", explains Szymon Ananicz from IdeaForum. The affected companies will have to restructure their capital within just six months of the law being announced. That is where the new investors would enter.
Polish capital dominates the media today. "TVN is the exception in television," explains Tadeusz Kowalski, a professor in the department of journalism at the University of Warsaw, who since 2016 has investigated the advertising spending of state-owned companies and notes how "they carefully avoid media critical of the government." Kowalski warns that this change in the rules "undermines confidence in the state, worsens the investment climate" and could have consequences for Poland "for violating the terms of the concessions granted, which were given in accordance with national and European legislation."
Freedom of the press
The situation in Poland also worries Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which has seen how since 2015 the country has been descending steps in the organization's World Press Freedom Index to rank 64 out of 180. “A long time ago that we observe with great concern the maneuvers that the Polish Government has launched to limit in an unacceptable way the freedom of the press ”, regrets Alfonso Armada, president of RSF Spain.
The international organization has detected "measures similar to those implemented by the Government of Viktor Orbán in Hungary: interference by the State, related companies and political supporters to limit media pluralism." Earlier this year, the media group Polska Press, which belonged to Germany's Verlagsgruppe Passau, was bought by state oil company PKN, run by close allies to PiS. RSF denounced that the sale left 20 of the 24 regional newspapers in related hands to the Government.