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On Wednesday, despite accusations of violating the parliamentary voting procedure, Poland’s ruling camp managed to narrowly approve a contentious amendment to the Broadcasting Act.

If signed into law, the bill would ban companies outside the European Economic Area (EEA) from owning more than a 49% stake in Polish broadcasters, effectively forcing Discovery Inc. into selling the majority of its shares in one of the country’s largest independent TV networks and news providers - TVN. Thus, the legislation is seen as a thinly-veiled effort to shut down the American-owned television station.

Unsurprisingly, the news about Poland’s lower house of Parliament passing the controversial media bill was followed by concerned reactions from Transatlantic and European allies.  

Asked about the media bill during a press briefing, Ned Price, the US Department of State spokesperson, said that "some of the most senior people in the Department have had discussions with senior Polish officials" on this issue, and that the US is "watching [it] very closely".

In a press release issued on Wednesday, August 11, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, stated that "the United States is deeply troubled by draft legislation passed by the lower house of the Polish parliament that targets the most watched independent news station, which is also one of the largest U.S. investments in the country", adding that the amendment "threatens media freedom and could undermine Poland’s strong investment climate". Concluding that the bill runs "counter to the principles and values for which modern, democratic nations stand", he urged the Polish government to "demonstrate its commitment to shared principles not only in words, but also in deeds".

The Secretary of State doubled down on his statement in a Tweet, implying that the legislation is incompatible with democratic values, because it would "gravely weaken media freedom".

Mr Blinken is the highest-ranking US official to openly criticize the "anti-TVN bill".

In a recent interview with TVN, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said that if passed, the bill "might have an adverse effect on American investments in Poland".

Poland’s European allies also expressed their worries that the legislation might have a negative impact on Poland’s image as a democratic country.

In a Tweet, Vera Jourová, the EU Commission’s Vice-President for Values and Transparency, said that "media pluralism and diversity of opinions are what strong democracies welcome, not fight against.  The draft Polish broadcasting law sends a negative signal". At the same time, she urged for a EU-wide Media Freedom Act to "uphold media freedom and support the rule of law".

The United Nations Human Rights Regional Office for Europe wrote that it is "concerned about the impact that the new amendment to the Broadcasting Act may have on media freedom", adding that "an independent and pluralistic media is essential to enable democratic & participative societies".

Discovery, Inc.: the bill violates the US-Poland Bilateral Investment Treaty

Claiming that the legislation violates the US-Poland Bilateral Investment Treaty, on Thursday, Discovery Inc., the owner of TVN, announced that it will take legal action against the Polish government:

"Discovery Inc. has formally notified the Polish government that it will take legal action under the bilateral investment treaty between the United States of America and the Republic of Poland. 

The notification follows Poland's discriminatory campaign against Discovery's TVN, including its refusal to renew TVN24's broadcasting license, and culminated in the vote yesterday in the lower house of the Polish Parliament to pass legislation that would ban upstream foreign media ownership in the country.  The legislation is the latest assault on independent media and freedom of the press, and takes direct aim at Discovery's TVN, the country's leading independent broadcasting group and news provider, as well as one of the largest U.S. investments in Poland.   

Over a number of years, the current Polish government has targeted TVN in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner as part of a broader crackdown on independent media and in direct violation of legal protections around freedom of expression. 

The Notice of Dispute was sent to President Andrzej Duda earlier today. Discovery continues to strive for a positive resolution to this situation, but should this fail, Discovery intends to commence arbitration proceedings in accordance with Article IX(3) of the Treaty and seek full compensation for Poland's breaches".

What’s next for the „anti-TVN" bill?

The bill will now go to the Senate, which has 30 days to consider it. A member of the oppositional Civic Coalition told us that as of today, the recommendation is to reject the bill altogether. It is worth pointing out that the opposition has a slim majority in the Senate.

If senators do indeed reject the "anti-TVN bill" or amend the law, PiS will need an absolute majority in the lower house to reject the resolution. In practice, it would need 231 votes.

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Every day, 400 journalists at Gazeta Wyborcza write verified, fact-checked stories about Polish politics and society, keeping a critical eye on the ruling camp’s persistent assault on democratic values and the rule of law; the growing cultural tension between religious fundamentalism and human rights; and the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic. Our journalists are on the front lines in 25 Polish cities, reporting from the streets, hospitals, and courtrooms about issues that move public opinion.

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