Poland’s right-wing coalition government took a narrow win in parliament on Wednesday as lawmakers passed a controversial media law that could lead to a US-owned television station losing its license.
The approval of the media bill by the House of Representatives came in a stormy and chaotic session of parliament in which the legislation was briefly postponed by opposition lawmakers. The government forced a vote to revoke the postponement, sparking outrage from lawmakers.
The long day of political shenanigans followed the withdrawal from government of a small coalition partner in a dispute over the proposed new law. Due to the departure of the coalition partner, the government has now lost its parliamentary majority.
The government, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party, will continue to lead Poland unless it loses a confidence vote, which would require a two-thirds vote of the lower house. But the government is wounded and facing dissent from another coalition partner, so it may not last until the next scheduled election, in 2023.
On Tuesday, the small deal party, led by Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Gowin, criticized the media law, which has alarmed the United States and sparked protests in Poland. When Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki fired Mr Gowin for criticizing the legislation, the party formally left the government.
The Accord Party, with 13 seats in the 460-seat Sejm, or lower house, was the smallest and most moderate partner in the coalition, which is dominated by Law and Justice, and has also objected to new tax legislation.
The bill, passed by the House of Representatives on Wednesday by a vote of 228 to 216, with 10 abstentions, would strengthen a ban on non-European companies that control Polish broadcasters. The network most affected by the bill is TVN, which has numerous channels, including the popular all-news TVN24, and which is mostly owned by US company Discovery Inc. through a subsidiary registered in the Netherlands.
The network has been more critical of the government than most media outlets, especially the Polish public broadcaster TVP, which has become an outlet for the government’s views.
The Trump and Biden administrations have lobbied Warsaw to leave TVN alone, and recently Derek H. Chollet, the State Department adviser, warned the Polish government that further US investment could be jeopardized if the bill passes. would become.
Many concerns have been expressed about the new legislation, which appears to be a further attack on media freedom and independence. Since Law and Justice came to power in 2015, Poland has fallen from 18th to 64th in the World Press Freedom Index, compiled by the media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders.
Mr Gowin said that “this law clearly violates the principle of media freedom.” He added that it “would push us towards a confrontation with the United States, which is our main ally from a defense standpoint.”
Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford political scientist who closely follows Poland, warned that Poland was following Hungary in “dismantling democracy within an EU member state”
Radoslaw Sikorski, a former Polish foreign and defense minister and now a European opposition legislator, said that “a vote for the takeover of TVN” was a vote “for an anti-Western dictatorship with impunity for thieves”.
To become law, the bill must go to the Senate, which is already controlled by the opposition, which has a month to vote. If it is rejected there, as expected, it must then be passed again by an absolute majority by the lower house and then signed by the Polish president. So there will be considerable debate and lobbying.
The government argues that the bill is intended to prevent countries such as Russia and China from taking over the local media; the opposition says it aims to bring TVN under control of Polish owners who support the government.
The Polish government is already in a major confrontation with the European Union over its challenge to the rule of law and the supremacy of the European Court of Justice.
Brussels has given Warsaw until August 16 to comply with European Court rulings demanding the suspension of a disciplinary “chamber” that critics say has been used by the Law and Justice to intimidate judges who are not to their liking. Poland’s highest court has said that the European court, which is located in Luxembourg, does not have the power to issue such orders under the Polish constitution.
But last Saturday, the Polish government appeared to be pulling out, with Mr. Kaczynski said Poland would “delete the disciplinary chamber in the form it now functions”, while insisting that he did not recognize the European court’s orders because they went beyond the limits of the EU treaties. The European Union has made it clear that the rulings of its courts transcend national courts and has vowed to fine Poland if it does not follow the rules.
Mr Kaczynski said the government would propose a new version of the chamber in September. But Brussels sees Poland’s challenge to the rule of law and media freedom as deeper than the disciplinary chamber itself, so the conflict is expected to continue.
Anatol Magdziarz contributed from Warsaw.