President Duda vetoes media bill

President Duda
Poland’s president Andrzej Duda has vetoed the media bill sent to him by the lower house of the Polish parliament (Sejm) that would have tightened rules around foreign ownership of media in Poland, specifically affecting the ownership of news channel TVN24 by U.S. media company Discovery Inc.

The move made front page news around the world.

As reported in the Financial Times, in a televised address President Duda said: “The majority of my countrymen . . . don’t want more fights. And my job as president is to act in such a way as to avoid these fights,” he said. “If we signed a deal — and we did sign a deal — we have to keep it. If we don’t keep our deals with others, others won’t keep their deals with us.”

According to the FT: “The bill came against a backdrop of broader pressure on the independent media since PiS took office in 2015, and was widely seen as an attack on TVN, which provides critical coverage of the government. This year Poland’s media watchdog delayed the renewal of the broadcasting licence of TVN’s main news channel, TVN24, until just four days before it was due to expire, even though the application had been submitted 19 months earlier.”

Potentially explosive row with the US avoided

As Reuters pointed out: “The move allows NATO-member Poland to sidestep a potentially explosive row with the United States at a time of heightened tension in eastern Europe amid what some countries see as increased Russian assertiveness.” Reuters went on to report more from Andrzej Duda’s television address, quoting the president as saying: “One of the arguments considered during the analyses of this law was the issue of an international agreement that was concluded in 1990 … this treaty speaks about the protection of investments. There is a clause which says that media-related investments may be excluded, but it concerns future investments.”

According to the BBC: “The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has long said foreign corporations hold too much power over Polish media and rushed the bill through parliament earlier this month. But critics said the move was intended to attack TVN24, Poland’s most watched news channel and a network whose reporters have often been critical of the conservative government.” As the BBC went on to report: “Thousands of Poles protested earlier this month outside the presidential palace in Warsaw against the law, with many in the crowd waving EU flags and holding signs emblazoned with the TVN24 logo. Former EU chief Donald Tusk, who now leads the opposition Civic Platform party, said Mr Duda’s decision proved that “pressure makes sense”. And the chief US diplomat in Warsaw, Chargé d’affaires Bix Aliu, tweeted his thanks to Mr Duda and praised him for “his leadership and commitment to common democratic values and for protecting the investment climate in Poland”. “Together, the allies are stronger,” Mr Aliu said.”

Hardliners in Poland frustrated by the veto

For the New York Times: “The veto frustrated a yearslong effort by more hard-line elements in Poland’s nationalist governing party to restrict foreign influence and shrink the country’s media space to outlets that share the party’s deeply conservative and sometimes xenophobic views.” The veto, the NYT went on to say, “is likely to strain an already fractious coalition government bitterly divided over how far to push a conservative agenda rooted in fealty to the Catholic Church and the belief that Polish sovereignty trumps commitments to partners in the European Union and NATO, which Poland joined in 1999.”

In the UK’s The Guardian, the increased threat to press independence is highlighted: “Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party controls the public television broadcaster TVP, which has become a government mouthpiece, and much of the regional press. Since PiS was elected to power in 2015, Poland has dropped 46 places in Reporters Without Borders’ world press freedom index to reach the 64th position.”

Hungary as a warning

The Washington Post quotes professor Ben Stanley from the Center for the Study of Democracy at SWPS University in Warsaw: “There has been some suggestion that it might have been brought back to give the media something new to focus on other than rising covid cases. What surprised observers is that it is such a politically damaging bill in terms of relations to the U.S., that it seemed like such a perverse thing to do.” Hungary, the WP goes on to say: “serves as an example of what can happen to media independence under populists. There, allies of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government have bought up independent media outlets, turning them into government mouthpieces. “If this bill had gone through, it would have been a significant message to other media outlets that not only is dissent something that is not tolerated in a rhetorical manner,” Stanley said, “but it is also going to result in actual practical problems for these companies through the use of legislation like this.””

Could Poland’s parliament overturn the veto? This is not a likely scenario, according to Politico: “The PiS-led government does not have anything close to a majority to reject Duda’s veto. Overturning the president’s decision requires a majority of three-fifths with at least half of 460 MPs present. Given that the opposition would mobilise for the potential vote, the government would need 276 votes, but currently it can only count on 228.”

In a statement, TVN said: “We accept with appreciation and joy the decision of the president of the Republic of Poland, Andrzej Duda, who acted in favor of the freedom of the media and viewers’ right to choose. By vetoing Lex TVN [as the law was known], the president defended good relations with the United States.”

August 13, 2021
TVN vote – international media reaction
Photo courtesy of TVN The Sejm’s vote to pass the Broadcasting Law - which would prevent companies from outside the European Economic Area holding a controlling stake in Polish media companies, thereby forcing TVN owner Discovery Group to sell its stake - has reverberated around the world, most strikingly in the USA The following news [...]
Written by: Richard Stephens