Poland media ownership Bill threatens US-owned TVN channel

Law intends to prevent ‘outside bodies’ influencing public debate, prime minister says

February 2021: A protester holds a ‘TVP lies’ banner while demonstrating against the governmental plan to impose tax burdens on private broadcasters. TVP is the country's national broadcaster while TVN is private. File photograph: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty

February 2021: A protester holds a ‘TVP lies’ banner while demonstrating against the governmental plan to impose tax burdens on private broadcasters. TVP is the country's national broadcaster while TVN is private. File photograph: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty

 

Poland’s ruling national conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party had a long to-do list when it took power in 2015 – but right at the top was reform of public broadcaster TVP.

Stage one saw 200 journalists fired and Jacek Kurski hired as director general. Despite close ties to PiS, Kurski insisted that his arrival in 2016 was a “guarantee that the independence and freedom will be retained in public television”.

Last month Kurski struck a different tone when he was awarded a national honour for services to the Polish nation. In a robust speech he echoed a narrative that TVP has shaped for its viewers on his watch: Polish national identity and values are under attack – from Germany, Brussels, liberalism and “LGBT ideology”.

PiS is the last political defender of these values, Kurski said in his speech, and could rely on TVP to counter what he called a “neo-Bolshevist onslaught” to corrupt Polish morality.

Since Poland’s transition to democracy in 1989, successive Polish governments have tinkered with TVP. But its unprecedented PiS-era overhaul is reflected in Poland’s slide in the World Press Freedom Index from 18th place in 2015 to 64th today out of 180 countries

Director general of Poland’s national broadcaster TVP, Jacek Kurski, who has close ties to the country’s ruling Law and Justice party. File photograph: Reuters/Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Gazeta
Director general of Poland’s national broadcaster TVP, Jacek Kurski, who has close ties to the country’s ruling Law and Justice party. File photograph: Reuters/Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Gazeta

.

Reporters Without Borders, an international non-governmental organisation that campaigns for a free press, describes TVP as a “government propaganda mouthpiece”, echoing critical voices in the European Parliament and the Council of Europe parliamentary assembly.

Judging from viewing figures, many Poles have tuned out of TVP’s neo-Bolshevist narrative. Among the country’s top 10 channels, just more than a fifth of Poles are regular viewers of TVP network stations while a third watch private channels. Among the most popular are those from the TVN stable, owned by the US Discovery Channel.

That could be about to change if a Bill brought to parliament this week by PiS politicians becomes law. Prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the Bill was intended to prevent “outside bodies” from influencing public debate in Poland without the approval of Poland’s broadcast regulator.

“Every serious country should have such instruments,” he said, defining “outside bodies” as being from beyond the European Economic Area, comprising the European Union, Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein.

‘Silence us’

TVN, which has a nearly 16 per cent market share across three channels. said the Bill was “intended to silence us and to deprive the viewers of their right to choose . . . under the false pretence of a fight against foreign propaganda”.

Opposition politicians have joined the protest, with MP Joanna Senyszyn saying her Left Party would never consent to a “draft law aimed at eliminating TVN . . . from Poland’s media landscape”.

The US embassy in Warsaw has been vocal on the threat of such interventions in the past and said this week it was watching developments with “rising concern”.

“TVN has been an essential part of the Polish media landscape for over 20 years,” tweeted the embassy’s charge d’affaires Bix Aliu. “Unfettered press is crucial for democracy.”

The Bill is the latest stage in the government’s self-described “repolonisation” of the country’s media landscape. PiS chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski has described the foreign ownership of Polish media holdings as a security risk.

He was reportedly delighted when Poland’s Orlen oil company acquired a leading newspaper group from its German owner last year. It now publishes all but four of Poland’s 24 regional newspapers and moved quickly to replace senior editors with PiS-friendly figures.

Many private media outlets report a permanent onslaught from the government: a steady flow of lawsuits against reports into corrupt PiS figures combined with a withdrawal of lucrative government advertisements.

Meanwhile, a proposed tax on advertising revenue prompted a strike among privately-owned media outlets. Their finances are already weakened by the pandemic’s economic effects and many fear the new tax will finish them off.

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