The District Court in Warsaw decided to suspend the antitrust authority's approval for the takeover of the German media group Polska Press by the Polish state-owned oil company Orlen. The court's decision followed an appeal brought by the Commissioner for Human Rights, Adam Bodnar. As a result, the state oil giant is now blocked from effectively exercising its ownership rights over the media company.
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In December of last year, the Polish state oil giant PKN Orlen announced it was taking over the German media group Polska Press- the owner of a majority of Poland’s regional dailies, about 120 local weeklies, several hundred web portals, and a number of printing houses.

- Thanks to this investment, we will gain access to 17.4 million readers online. It will help us to strengthen our sales department and further enhance our big data tools. These are key resources in the context of our planned retail network development- said Orlen’s CEO Daniel Obajtek, announcing the transaction.

The Polish Office of Competition and Consumer Protection (UOKiK) approved the takeover in February. On March 1, Orlen signed an agreement for the purchase of Polska Press, becoming the company’s formal owner. 

In mid-March, the Commissioner for Human Rights challenged the antitrust regulator’s decision. Following his appeal, the court then suspended UOKiK’s approval for the takeover.

The Commissioner brought his appeal before the Court of Competition and Consumer Protection of the Warsaw District Court, which reviews appeals against decisions of the antitrust regulator.  The Commissioner challenged the regulator’s approval for Orlen's acquisition of Polska Press along with all its belongings. 

"The Court of Competition and Consumer Protection has granted the motion of the Commissioner for Human Rights to suspend the implementation of the decision of the President of the Office of Competition and Consumer Protection concerning the concentration - takeover of Polska Press by PKN Orlen"- reads a statement issued by the Commissioner’s Office. - The District Court informed the Commissioner about its decision over the phone on April 12.

What does the ruling mean in practice? The Commissioner’s statement reads that as a result of the court’s decision "PKN Orlen is now prohibited from exercising its ownership rights over Polska Press".

The Commissioner is currently waiting to receive official documents from the court. While the decision has already been made on April 8, it was sent to the Commissioner's office by mail.

Kaczyński: We must have our own media channels

Orlen has already started introducing staff changes at Polska Press. On April 1, Dorota Kania, a journalist with the right-wing populist weekly "Gazeta Polska" and an expert on vetting, has replaced Paweł Fąfara as the media group’s new editor-in-chief. Later, Ms. Kania also took Mr. Fąfara’s place on the company’s board of directors.

The ruling camp has high hopes for the takeover of Polska Press, and Ms. Kania's promotion only proves that it places great trust in her loyalty. Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the ruling Law and Justice party, called the takeover "the best news we heard in recent years”. - We must have our own media channels. Non-Polish media should be a rare exception. This is the only way to defend our freedom and sovereignty. (...) If we continue down the path we’re already on, we will move towards fixing the problem- Kaczyński said. 

The International Press Institute hailed Orlen's intentions as a worrying victory for the Law and Justice party in its efforts to "repolonize" and centralize the media. Among others, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, the Journalists’ Association, and the Commissioner for Human Rights warned that the takeover of Polska Press by Orlen, a state-controlled company, could lead to restrictions on media pluralism and freedom of speech in Poland.

The President of the Office for Competition and Consumer Protection did not take such voices of concern into account. - The law foresees that the only premise for the president of UOKiK to prohibit a concentration is if it significantly limits competition - explained the institution’s president Tomasz Chróstny. According to the regulator, Orlen’s acquisition of Polska Press will not affect competition in the Polish press market because the activities of both companies do not overlap.  

The Commissioner for Human Rights: What about the freedom of expression?

Justifying his motion, the Commissioner for Human Rights wrote that "a company controlled by the State Treasury, and thus also government politicians, can easily influence the editorial line of individual editorial offices. In this way, they can transform free press into an instrument of government propaganda".

The Commissioner challenged the antitrust regulator’s decision to grant Orlen permission to acquire Polska Press. - In his appeal, the Commissioner accused the head of UOKiK of violating a number of provisions, but the main complaint concerns what the regulator ignored in his proceedings. Among other things, he failed to examine the impact of the transaction on competition in the media market. In our opinion, this issue was treated very narrowly. Basically, the president limited himself to analyzing the advertising market. According to the Commissioner, this case needs to be viewed in a much broader sense" said Mirosław Wróblewski, an attorney at the Commissioner’s Office. "The Ombudsman expects the regulator to conduct his proceedings properly - taking into account all the necessary elements - and issue a decision that is consistent with the law”- he added.

"The antitrust authority is supposed to consider all circumstances affecting the protection of consumer welfare" – reads the Commissioner’s complaint. He accuses UOKiK’s president of failing to examine whether the purchase of Polska Press would negatively affect press freedom in Poland. "Media controlled by the State Treasury, i.e. government politicians, do not provide citizens with objective information. They present a one-sided picture, favorable to whoever is in power" – claims Mr. Wróblewski.

- The Commissioner requested the court to overturn the decision of the President of the Office for Competition and Consumer Protection in its entirety, but also to suspend its implementation until the case is decided by the court"- said the attorney. 

Orlen’s CEO comments on the decision. The Commissioner for Human Rights responds

We asked the Office for Competition and Consumer Protection and Orlen for a comment. Instead of an official statement, we received a Tweet from the oil company’s CEO Daniel Obajtek: - We have not received any information from the court about Polska Press. I am astonished that it is Mr. Adam Bodnar who is announcing the alleged court decision, referring to a conversation he had over the phone. We would be surprised to see the court make such a decision without even having the necessary set of documents"- he tweeted.

In an interview with TVN24 following the evening news program, Mr. Bodnar was asked if the court could have made the decision without having a set of documents that Mr. Obajtek referred to in his Tweet. - "In this case, the Commissioner filed a motion to stop the transaction. The decision of the President of the Office of Competition and Consumer Protection has been appealed and, what is more, PKN Orlen responded to the motion for suspension"- Mr. Bodnar said.

- "We already received the entire comprehensive set of documents presented by PKN Orlen in the proceedings about two weeks ago. Not to mention that Orlen had enough time and could’ve already issued an official response"- the Commissioner pointed out.


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