The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Poland pushes ahead with bill criticized as attack on U.S.-owned TV channel and press freedom

People protest outside the Polish Parliament on Aug. 11 after lawmakers passed a bill seen as harmful to media freedom. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

Poland’s populist government on Wednesday advanced legislation that would restrict foreign ownership of local broadcasters — a move seen as targeting an independent TV channel controlled by a major U.S. media group. The bill has been criticized by the Biden administration and opposition lawmakers in the country.

The proposed law is viewed by many observers as one aimed at TVN, a large private network majority-owned by Discovery, a New York-based company whose chief executive is expected to manage CNN and HBO if a planned merger is completed. TVN24, one of the network’s news channels, has been critical of Law and Justice, the right-wing party that leads Poland’s coalition government.

Discovery on Thursday said it notified the Polish government of plans for possible legal action under a U.S.-Poland investment pact if negotiations with Polish officials fail to reach a “position resolution.” A statement by Discovery called the parliamentary vote “the latest assault on independent media and freedom of the press” in Poland.

Proponents of the bill, which was narrowly passed by the Sejm, the Polish legislature’s lower house, argue that it would strengthen national security by inhibiting Russian or Chinese influence in the country.

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Warsaw prohibits non-European entities from owning a majority share of the country’s media companies. Discovery managed to skirt the regulation by controlling TVN through a Dutch affiliate, but the proposed legislation would ban that practice.

The draft law has been attacked by the country’s political opposition as a blatant attempt to curb press freedom and weaken independent institutions. The government has moved to strengthen its control over Polish television channels and the judiciary since coming to power in 2015. It is embroiled in a long-standing dispute with the European Union over the independence of Polish courts.

“If the bill passes, we will likely cross the point of no return toward a kleptocratic autocracy,” Radek Sikorski, a Polish member of the European Parliament, tweeted Wednesday ahead of the vote.

He compared Poland’s trajectory to that of Hungary under Prime Minister Vikor Orban’s increasingly authoritarian grip. “The ruling party promised us Budapest,” Sikorski tweeted, “and it is delivering.”

The bill is so controversial and divisive that a junior partner in the ruling coalition quit after its leader was fired from his post as deputy prime minister Tuesday for criticizing it. Many Polish residents also took to the streets in protest nationwide, with some clashing with police outside the legislature, the Associated Press reported.

The United States is “deeply troubled” by the draft legislation, said Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a Wednesday statement that was unusually critical of a NATO ally. As of April, about 4,500 U.S. troops are on rotation in Poland.

“Poland has worked for decades to foster a vibrant and free media,” he added. “This draft legislation would significantly weaken the media environment the Polish people have worked so long to build.”

The bill now goes to the upper house of Poland’s legislature, which is controlled by the opposition but can be overridden by the Sejm. Poland’s president, who is backed by Law and Justice but has sometimes vetoed the party’s proposed laws, must also sign the bill for it to become law.