Polish media ownership bill threatens US-owned TVN channel

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

The first stage saw 200 journalists dismissed and Jacek Kurski hired as managing director. Despite close ties to the PiS, Kurski insisted his arrival in 2016 was a “guarantee that independence and freedom will be preserved on public television.”

Last month, Kurski adopted a different tone when he received a national honor for service to the Polish nation. In a vigorous speech, he echoed a narrative that TVP has fashioned for its viewers under its watch: Polish national identity and values ​​are under attack – from Germany, from Brussels, from liberalism and from “ideology. LGBT ”.

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

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

The director general of Polish national television TVP, Jacek Kurski, who has close ties with the ruling party in the country, Law and Justice. Archive photograph: Reuters / Slawomir Kaminski / Agencja Gazeta

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

Judging by the audience figures, many Poles have moved away from TVP’s neo-Bolshevik narrative. Among the top 10 channels in the country, just over a fifth of Poles are regular viewers of TVP network channels 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 presented to parliament this week by PiS politicians becomes law. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the bill aims to prevent “outside bodies” from influencing public debate in Poland without the approval of the Polish broadcasting regulator.

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

“Make us shut up”

TVN, which has a market share of almost 16% on three channels. said the bill was “intended to silence us and deprive viewers of their right to choose.” . . under the false pretext of a fight against foreign propaganda ”.

Opposition politicians joined the protest, with MP Joanna Senyszyn saying her Left Party would never agree to a “bill to eliminate TVN.” . . of the Polish media landscape ”.

The US Embassy in Warsaw has spoken out on the threat of such interventions in the past and said this week it is monitoring developments with “growing concern.”

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

The bill is the latest step in the government’s self-proclaimed “repolonization” of the country’s media landscape. PiS chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski described foreign ownership of Polish media as a security risk.

He would have been delighted when Polish oil company Orlen bought a leading media group from its German owner last year. It now publishes all but four Polish regional newspapers, and quickly replaced editors with pro-PiS figures.

Numerous private media report a continuing government attack: a constant stream of lawsuits against reports of corrupt PiS figures combined with a withdrawal of lucrative government ads.

Meanwhile, a proposed tax on advertising revenue sparked a strike among the private media. Their finances are already weakened by the economic effects of the pandemic and many fear that the new tax will end them.

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