In a day of political drama, parliament’s lower chamber finally voted 228 to 216 late on Wednesday to approve the legislation. It’s ostensibly to protect broadcasters from takeovers though targets the American owner of Poland’s largest private television network. The bill now goes to the Senate.
The move has been criticized by U.S. senators, the State Department and the EU as an attempt to muzzle independent media. The governing coalition also collapsed before the vote after Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki fired his deputy, Jaroslaw Gowin, the leader of a smaller party and an increasingly vocal opponent of the Law & Justice leadership.
It leaves Poland at another critical juncture as the now minority government relies on more radical nationalist forces for support. Along with Hungary, the EU’s biggest eastern state has been in conflict with Brussels in recent years over the independence of judges and the media, yet Law & Justice played up close ties with its NATO allies in Washington.
“What the Law & Justice is doing lacks any sense and shows it’s a party of ideologues, focused entirely on domestic politics where strategic concern plays a secondary role,” said Marcin Zaborowski, policy director at GlobSec think-tank in Warsaw.
Morawiecki and his party have said the legislation is vital for the country to prevent Russian or Chinese media taking over a Polish broadcaster. It also showed Poland was finally standing up for its rights after decades of passively accepting the international order, he said.
The vote on Wednesday was delayed after opposition parties won a motion to adjourn the sitting of parliament until next month. That was then annulled by the speaker on the basis that she had made a mistake when announcing the motion, triggering an outcry from the opposition, which accused the ruling party of breaking parliamentary protocol.
The exit of Gowin, the pro-business deputy prime minister, meanwhile raises the profile of far-right lawmakers who have questioned the merits of EU membership.
Law & Justice’s remaining partner in the coalition is a small group allied with hardline Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who wanted Poland to veto the EU’s virus recovery package last year and has broached the topic of the country leaving the 27-nation bloc.
Poland has been the biggest net recipient of EU money, getting more than 130 billion euros ($152 billion) since it joined in 2004 that transformed the economy. Yet concern over the erosion of rule of law in Poland and Hungary have led to threats of delay payouts from the region’s pandemic stimulus fund.
“Gowin’s dismissal could radicalize the government,” said Barbara Brodzinska-Mirowska, a political scientist from Torun University. “The division of roles has been clear — with Gowin being a pro-European and liberal voice in the cabinet and Ziobro to the contrary.”
There were protests against the media law on Tuesday evening in about 100 Polish cities and towns and outside parliament on Wednesday. Demonstrators called the legislation an attempt to muzzle critical journalists and reverse the country’s embrace of western democratic standards.
The changes target Discovery’s network, TVN, by banning companies from outside the associated trade area of the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway from directly or indirectly owning broadcasters.
A senior State Department official warned that if implemented, the law will impact future investment decisions in Poland by U.S. companies.
–With assistance from Dorota Bartyzel.