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Polish draft law seen as targeting critical broadcaster

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The Associated Press

Warsaw headquarters of Poland's TVN broadcaster that is owned by the U.S. company Discovery Inc., in Warsaw, Poland, Thursday, July 8, 2021. Lawmakers of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party have unexpectedly filed in parliament draft changes to Poland's media law that would ban non-European ownership and are seen as are aimed against Discovery Inc. and TVN broadcaster and its all-news TVN24 channel, openly critical of the right-wing government.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

WARSAW – Proposed legislative changes that would ban non-European ownership of Polish media have angered critics who say they target the U.S. company Discovery Inc., owner of the TVN broadcaster that's openly critical of the right-wing government.

The changes were published on Poland's parliament website late Wednesday and were proposed by lawmakers from the governing Law and Justice party that has been taking steps to control the media ever since winning power in 2015. Critics say the party has turned state TVP broadcaster into its mouthpiece, while party leader and strategist Jaroslaw Kaczynski says he wants to limit media ownership and influence by foreign investors.

Earlier this year, state-owned oil and fuels giant PKN Orlen bought regional media group Polska Press from its German owner Verlagsgruppe Passau. Party loyalists have been appointed to top managerial positions.

The TVN broadcaster's all-news TVN24 channel that exposes alleged irregularities and scandals within the government has long irritated the Law and Justice party.

TVN was launched as a commercial broadcaster by the private Polish media group ITI in 1997. It was Poland’s third most popular broadcaster in 2020, according to specialized surveys.

A top Law and Justice figure and European Parliament member, Joachim Brudzinski, argued that TVN journalists lack objectivity, often taking the side of the government’s opponents.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stood by the unexpected draft changes Thursday, saying they are to prevent "outside bodies ... influencing the media debate, influencing public opinion ... without the approval of the Polish regulator.”

“Every serious country should have such instruments,” Morawiecki said.

Morawiecki defined outside bodies as being from outside the European Economic Area that includes the European Union, Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein.

TVN, which had a 7.5% share in Poland's media market in 2020, responded with a statement saying that the proposed changes were “intended to silence us and to deprive the viewers of their right to choose.”

“Under the false pretense of a fight against foreign propaganda, an attempt is being made to limit the freedom of the media,” the TVN statement said. “We will not surrender under any pressure and we will remain independent in acting on behalf of our viewers.”

The U.S. embassy said it was following the TVN licensing process “with rising concern.”

“TVN has been an essential part of the Polish media landscape for over 20 years. Unfettered press is crucial for democracy,” the Embassy's chargé d’affaires Bix Aliu said on Twitter.

Poland's government policies on media but chiefly on taking control of the justice system have put it on a collision curse with the EU that says they undermine the principles of democracy.

The proposed changes come as Discovery Inc. has been waiting for over a year for the extension of TVN24′s license that expires Sept. 26. Licenses for some other TVN channels such as TVN24 BIS run until 2027.

Discovery bought the broadcaster in 2018 from another U.S. media concern, Scripps Networks Interactive, and manages TVN though Polish Television Holding BV, registered in the Netherlands.

The head of Poland's media regulator, Witold Kolodziejski, confirmed the body was in talks with TVN24 over its concession and was analyzing opinions by experts, but also said he favors the interpretation of the law that requires non-European investors to own no more than 49% stakes in Polish media companies.

Deputy Infrastructure Minister Marcin Horala insisted on Onet Rano news portal that the proposed changes are “not about closing TVN.” He suggested that the current owner could sell some of the shares to a European investor if its license is to be extended.

The proposal, for which the ruling party's coalition partners say they had no advance warning, has drawn vehement criticism.

A lawmaker for the opposition The Left party, Joanna Senyszyn, said on Twitter that Law and Justice lawmakers have “filed a draft law that is aimed at eliminating TVN and TVN24 from Poland's media market. We give no consent to that.”