Polish lawmakers overturn senate veto on disputed media law

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s president will have the final decision on a controversial media bill seen as targeting a U.S.-owned TV network that’s often critical of the Polish government, after lawmakers on Friday overturned a Senate veto on the proposed legislation.

In its last session of the year, the lower house, or Sejm, unexpectedly returned to the draft law that had seemed on freeze after the upper house rejected it in September. The lower house voted 229-212, with 11 abstentions, to reject the Senate’s veto.

Now the bill, which has already been approved by the Sejm, only needs backing from President Andrzej Duda to become law. But Duda has indicated he sees it as “controversial” and “incomprehensible” to the United States, citing the U.S. attitude toward the protection of property and freedom of speech.

He can either approve it, reject it or send to the Constitutional Tribunal — which is friendly to the right-wing government — for assessment.

The law would prevent any non-European entity from owning more than a 49% stake in television or radio broadcasters in Poland.

Its practical effect would be to force Discovery Inc., the U.S. owner of Poland’s largest private television network, TVN, to sell the majority or even all of its Polish holdings. Discovery Inc. is the only non-European media owner in Poland and the law is seen as targeting it.

Discovery Inc. said the outcome of Friday’s “surprise vote in the Polish Parliament should be deeply concerning to any enterprise investing in Poland and to anyone who cares about democracy and freedom of the press.”

“Through this vote, Poland risks directly undermining the values that have connected Poland with Europe, and uprooting the foundation of the Polish-American relationship,” the company said in a statement.

It appealed to Duda to “prevent” the bill from becoming law.

The top U.S. diplomat in Poland, Embassy charge d’affaires Bix Aliu, said on Twitter that the U.S. was “extremely disappointed by today’s passage of the media bill by the Sejm.”

“We expect President Duda to act in accordance with previous statements to use his leadership to protect free speech and business,” Aliu said.

TVN management said the vote was an “unprecedented attack on free media” that targeted the U.S., a key security and economic ally of Poland’s.

It said Discovery Group and Discovery Inc. will defend its interests and investment in Poland and use “all legal ways to ensure that the mission of our media is continued.”

The management said it trusts that Duda will veto the so-called Lex TVN, “in line with his earlier statements.”

Opposition groups on Facebook called for a street protest on Sunday night.

A top European Union official for values, Vera Jourova, condemned the vote on Twitter as targeting the TVN Group and putting ” further pressure on an already troubled media sector in Poland.

If the bill becomes law the EU Commission, the 27-member bloc’s executive arm, “will not hesitate to take action in case of non-compliance with EU law,” said Jourova, who is the commission’s vice-president for values and transparency.

Poland’s right-wing coalition government is in conflict with EU bodies over policies seen as violating the principles of democracy and rule of law. Since being elected in 2015, the government has been taking steps to take control of the media, the judiciary and other areas like education.

The main nationalist ruling party, Law and Justice, which proposed the media law in the summer, has argued that it’s a matter of national security to prevent outside bodies from being able to influence Polish public opinion. Its members insisted the law is to protect against ownership coming from non-democratic countries like Russia or China.

Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s most influential politician, maintained that state-owned companies will not be buying TVN and that it will most probably remain critical of the government.

The unexpected and last-minute vote on the controversial law drew protests from opposition parties, which allege there was a breach of procedures in the sudden return to the bill.

Opposition leaders also appealed to Duda to veto the bill.

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