Poland’s right-wing nationalist ruling party, Law and Justice, has been steadily losing ground in recent months. Its parliamentary majority has dwindled to one seat amid rising public discontent over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic and passage of new restrictions on abortion. Following the return to domestic politics of former prime minister and European Council president Donald Tusk, polls are showing his opposition Civic Platform party could defeat Law and Justice in the next election, which is due by 2023 but could come earlier.
It should be no surprise, then, that Law and Justice is reviving an effort to neuter the country’s highest-rated news station, TVN24, which unlike state-owned channels broadcasts independent news and critical commentary about the government. This week the head of the state broadcast regulator, a former Law and Justice member, told Reuters that the station was in violation of foreign ownership rules, and that its license might not be renewed by a Sept. 26 deadline. Meanwhile, the party’s legislators were pushing a new rule that would tighten the regulations further; a sponsor said the aim was to force a sale to a Polish state company. That is the strategy Poland and the like-minded government of Hungary have been using to silence critical media; last year the Polish state oil refinery bought a chain of regional newspapers from a Germany company, ending their independence.
Law and Justice’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has said “media in Poland should be Polish”; his acolytes say they are trying to protect against Polish news organizations falling into the hands of Russia or China. But TVN, which operates more than a dozen channels in Poland, is owned not by an authoritarian government but by Discovery, a private U.S. company. Though often at odds with the European Union, Law and Justice portrayed the United States as Poland’s most important ally during the administration of President Donald Trump and lobbied for a permanent U.S. military base in the country. Now the government seems to be waging what some Poles are describing as a “Cold War” against the Biden administration: In addition to the move against TVN, the foreign ministry is reportedly resisting the White House’s nominee for ambassador to Poland, Mark Brzezinski.
Discovery owns TVN through a subsidiary in the Netherlands, which should allow it to meet a legal test allowing majority foreign ownership of media by companies based in the European Union. It has had no trouble renewing the licenses of several of its other non-news Polish channels. So it could hardly be more clear what the government’s motive is in tightening the law. In case there were any doubt, Law and Justice deputy Marek Suski said it out loud on July 11.: a sale to “Polish businessmen,” he predicted, would give the government “some influence” over TVN.
The Biden administration has taken note of what would be a devastating blow to media freedom in Poland. The U.S. charge d’affaires in Warsaw and the State Department’s spokesman have tweeted their concerns. “Strong democracies welcome a free and independent press,” said State’s Ned Price. That’s just the problem: Under Law and Justice, Poland’s democracy has become progressively weaker. The United States must use all the leverage it can muster to ensure that independent television news in the country survives.