Proposed Polish Bill Further Restricts Media Freedoms in a Climate of Civil Rights Activism

On July 7 a draft media bill was proposed in Poland by lawmakers from the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) that would ban non-European companies from holding more than 49% stock in Polish media. Many critics have claimed that this most recent restrictive media bill is directly targeting the critical, left-leaning, U.S.-owned broadcaster TVN24. The bill is being proposed amid the increasingly systematic effort by the PiS to concentrate media in the hands of state-controlled private corporations and to restrict the free speech of independent left-leaning outlets that are critical of the government’s actions. With a recent rise in efforts to “repolonize” and “deconcentrate” the Polish media, the state of human rights and democracy in Poland are increasingly being brought under fire by both local and foreign dissenters. 

As the ruling party of Poland, PiS has been steadily making alarming changes to the Polish media and judiciary landscape since it gained power in 2015. After restructuring the judiciary to muzzle oppositional judges in 2017, according to Deutsche Welle, “Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski announced that … his next goal would be to deconcentrate and repolonize media ownership,” a strategy that aims to fragment foreign media ownership and concentrate the media services in the hands of the oppressively conservative Polish government. In order to do so, PiS has bought up regional media outlets through the use of private companies staffed with state officials, has launched coordinated antimonopoly investigations to block unfavoured mergers and licensing changes, and has placed pressure on dissenting broadcasters by imposing advertising taxes and other forms of weaponized economic reform. 

This proposed bill is considered to be a part of the most recent series of economic restrictions on left-leaning or critical media outlets, and many local and foreign bodies are concerned of the extent to which media freedoms might be rolled back as a result of this decision. U.S. Ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher said of this proposal that, “Forced fragmentation of the media will limit freedom of speech because only State-owned and small outlets will survive … Forcing media companies to sell shares will force investors to look elsewhere. That’s not a good investment climate – it’s censorship.” 

Speaking in opposition to dissenters, according to the International Press Institute, “This drive for so-called “repolonisation” of media has been framed by the government as an issue of national sovereignty … The bill is ‘aimed at clarifying regulations’ and enabling [The National Broadcasting Council] to ‘effectively counteract’ foreign companies controlling radio and television broadcasters.” One of the MP’s who pushed for the bill, MP Marek Suski, justified the proposal, saying that, “if this law is successfully passed and some of these shares can be bought by Polish businessmen, we will have some influence on what is happening on [TVN24].”

However, it is exactly government influence in these outlets that is the problem. According to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, “Restrictive measures and attempts to discredit and prevent scrutiny imposed by several State actors and other public figures against independent media contributes to further erode trust in the media … It poses a serious threat to democracy and to our common security.” Trust in the media has to be maintained as, according to LawAspect, “Press freedom plays a crucial role in the protection of basic human rights … Through press freedom, the individuals in the society will be in a position of protecting their own rights and also the rights of those close to them. This will in turn improve the maintenance of human rights in general for the whole society.” As tensions between the Polish government and left-leaning activist groups, like those fighting for LGBT Rights or the right to abortion, continue to rise, media freedom becomes more and more important. Activist media is already being censored: activists have been attacked for disseminating information about human rights issues, according to Amnesty International, and the recent move to restrict national media is further contributing to the censorship of information about civil rights movements in Poland. 

The proposal of the bill restricting foreign ownership of media in Poland cannot be seen as just “an issue of national sovereignty,” and “repolonization” and “deconcentration” cannot be seen as anything more than an attempt at censorship. The EU has been building up strategies to bring Poland and its ideological neighbours, Hungary and Slovenia, in check, according to the Center for European Policy Analysis. Media freedom is an essential foundation of democracy and the protection of human rights, so whether it be through tying law and order rules to economic and military support or promoting and furthering the efforts of activist movements, focus needs to be turned to Poland and its quickly-changing media and human rights landscape before it continues to erode democracy at the state level.