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On Monday April 12, the Court of Competition and Consumer Protection in Warsaw temporarily blocked the earlier decision by the country’s competition regulator UOKiK to approve the sale of the German-owned publishing company.

It came after the country’s human rights ombudsman, Adam Bodnar, challenged the green light given to the deal by UOKiK, a body which has drawn criticism from IPI and other groups for recent rulings in media cases that suggest a lack of independence.

In February, Bodnar had requested that UOKiK’s approval be blocked on the grounds that the purchase of the group by a state-controlled company – a move unprecedented in the European Union – would put the publishing house under political pressure.

On Monday, the ombudsman was given confirmation by the court’s secretariat that on April 8 it had upheld his motion and suspended the deal pending a full review. It means that PKN Orlen is temporarily barred from exercising its shareholder rights in Polska Press.

PKN Orlen’s CEO, Daniel Obajtek, said the company had not yet received any information about the decision from the court. UOKiK has three months so submit an appeal. It is currently unclear how long the full review by the Warsaw court will take.

IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen welcomed the court’s decision as an important circuit breaker in the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s efforts to solidify control over regional press and “repolonise” much of the country’s local media.

“This decision is a timely illustration of the importance of the rule of law and independence of the judiciary for ensuring that media freedom is protected”, he said. “The court has made an important ruling, one that will hopefully lead to a permanent ruling and apply the emergency break to PiS’s plans for greater control over the media landscape ahead of local elections in 2023.

“Though PKN Orlen always described the deal as a simple business transaction, it should be abundantly clear that a state-controlled company such as PKN Orlen, with clear links to the government, has no business buying a major regional newspaper publisher. This acquisition opened the door to the likely appointment of pro-government journalists and the steady censorship of critical voices.

“While a full review is now underway by the court and the decision can ultimately be appealed by PKN Orlen, this ruling is an initial victory both for the country’s human rights ombudsman and for independent media in Poland. How PiS now responds will be telling. We will continue to closely scrutinise this review process in the coming months.”

PKN Orlen bought Polska Press from German company Verlagsgruppe Passau in December for PLN 120 million (€27 million). The deal handed the state-owned oil refiner and petrol retailer control over of the one of the country’s largest media companies, which owns 20 regional dailies, 120 weekly magazines and 500 online portals across the country.

he European Commission’s vice president for values and transparency, Vera Jourová, and the European Parliament’s working group on media freedom had both expressed concern over media freedom after the sale, along with Polish opposition parties and independent journalists.

In a recent report summarising the findings of an IPI-led international press freedom mission by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), the independence of UOKiK was raised as a major area of concern.

In recent months, the Polish government has come under pressure from EU leaders, MEPs and press freedom and civil society groups over concerns it was following tactics used by the Orbán government in Hungary to slowly erode media pluralism.

The court’s decision also suspends PKN Orlen’s ownership rights to six printing works across the country that were part of the takeover. The oil and gas company last year completed the purchase of a 65 percent stake in newsstand operator Ruch, which has a network of 1,300 newspaper kiosks across the country.

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This statement by IPI is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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