Under pressure from the United States, the Polish president on Monday vetoed a controversial media law that was widely viewed as targeting an American-owned media outlet.
The proposal, pushed by the country’s right-wing coalition, would have banned most foreign nationals outside the E.U. from owning Polish media outlets. Current foreign media owners would have been required to sell off their majority stakes.
Polish leaders argued that this was intended to ensure Poland was free from Chinese and Russian influence, but detractors said it was designed to weaken news station TVN24, a large independent outlet that is often critical of the Polish government and in which the U.S. company Discovery has a majority stake.
“I share the opinion of most of my fellow countrymen, with whom I spoke, that we don’t need another disturbing or troubling issue, we do not need more disputes,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said in a video announcing the veto.
Duda — who is regularly criticized by the United States and other European countries for his anti-LGBT rhetoric and for moves to silence his critics — found himself in the unusual position of being praised in this case for defending democracy.
The United States celebrated the resolution of a months-long point of tension. Bix Aliu, the acting U.S. ambassador in Poland, tweeted in Polish that the veto underscored Duda’s “commitment to common democratic values.”
The proposal had been circulating in Parliament for months. The Polish Senate voted it down in September. But then in a surprise move this month, the lower house voted to override the Senate and push the bill through, setting up Duda for a showdown with the United States.
“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,” said Ben Stanley, a professor at the Center for the Study of Democracy at SWPS University in Warsaw. “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.”
In vetoing the bill, Duda opposed Poland’s Law and Justice party, which helped elect him to his second term last year. Parliament could theoretically overturn the veto, but Law and Justice is not expected to rally the 60 percent majority of votes that would be required.
Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister and former president of the European Council, wrote on Twitter that the episode demonstrated to the United States and the world that “pressure makes sense.”
Over the past six years, Poland has slipped from 18th in the global press freedom rankings to 62nd, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Nearby Hungary 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.”