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Poland’s Government Wins Vote on Media Bill, Despite Losing Majority

Poland’s Government Wins Vote on Media Bill, Despite Losing Majority
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Poland’s Government Wins Vote on Media Bill, Despite Losing Majority

Poland’s Government Wins Vote on Media Bill, Despite Losing Majority

Poland’s right-wing coalition government won a narrow victory in parliament on Wednesday when lawmakers passed a controversial media bill that could lead to the loss of a US television station’s license.

The lower house’s passage of the media bill came during a stormy and chaotic session of parliament in which legislation was briefly postponed by opposition lawmakers. The government forced a vote to cancel the postponement, prompting cries of outrage from lawmakers.

The long day of political shenanigans followed the withdrawal of the government of a small coalition partner in a dispute over the proposed new law. The departure of the coalition partner means that the government has now lost its parliamentary majority.

The government, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party, will continue to rule Poland unless it loses a vote of confidence, which would require a two-thirds vote in the lower house. But the government is hurt and faces dissent from another coalition partner, so it may not last until the next scheduled election, in 2023.

On Tuesday, the small Accord party, led by Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Gowin, criticized the media bill, which alarmed the United States and sparked protests around Poland. When Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki sacked Mr. Gowin for criticizing the legislation, the party formally left government.

The Accord party, with 13 seats in the Sejm, or lower house, which has 460 seats, was the smallest and most moderate partner of the coalition, dominated by Law and Justice, and also opposed the new tax legislation.

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The bill, which was passed by the lower house by 228 votes to 216 on Wednesday, with 10 abstentions, would strengthen the ban on non-European companies controlling Polish broadcasters. The network most affected by the bill is TVN, which has numerous channels, including the very popular All-news TVN24, and which is majority owned by the American company Discovery Inc. through a subsidiary registered in the Netherlands.

The network has been more critical of the government than most media, especially the Polish public broadcaster, TVP, which has become an outlet for government positions.

The Trump and Biden administrations have pressured Warsaw to leave TVN alone, and recently Derek H. Chollet, the State Department adviser, warned the Polish government that further US investments could be threatened if the project from law became law.

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 dropped from 18th to 64th place in the global press freedom ranking, compiled by the media monitoring group Reporters Without Borders.

Mr Gowin said that “this law clearly violates the principle of freedom of the media”. He added that this “would push us towards a confrontation with the United States, which is our most important ally from a defense point of view.”

Timothy Garton Ash, political scientist at Oxford who follows Poland closely, warned that Poland was following Hungary in “the dismantling of democracy within an EU member state”

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Radoslaw Sikorski, former Polish Foreign and Defense Minister and now opposition EU lawmaker, said that “a vote to buy TVN” was a vote “for an anti-Western dictatorship with the ‘impunity for thieves’.

To become law, the bill must go to the Senate, already controlled by the opposition, which has one month before it has to vote. If it is rejected, as expected, it must then be voted again by the lower house by an absolute majority, and then signed by the Polish president. So there will be a lot of debate and lobbying to come.

The government maintains that the bill is designed to prevent countries like Russia and China from taking over local media; the opposition says it is intended to bring TVN under the 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” which critics say has been used by law and justice to intimidate judges who do not he doesn’t like it. Poland’s highest court said the Luxembourg-based European Court did not have the power to impose such orders under the Polish constitution.

But last Saturday the Polish government appeared to back down, with Mr Kaczynski declaring that Poland would “abolish the disciplinary chamber as it currently functions”, while continuing to insist it did not recognize the orders of the European Court because they went beyond the limits of the EU treaties. The European Union has made it clear that its court’s rulings transcend national courts and has promised to fine Poland if it does not comply.

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Mr Kaczynski said the government would come up with a new version of the chamber in September. But Brussels considers Poland’s challenge to the rule of law and media freedom to run deeper than the disciplinary chamber itself, so the conflict should continue.

Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting from Warsaw.

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