A Wednesday afternoon of high drama in Poland's parliament has culminated in MPs passing a bill that will tighten rules on foreign ownership of media houses. The bill will now go to the upper house of parliament, the Senate.
Just hours after opposition lawmakers managed to get a vote on the controversial media law postponed, a fresh vote reversed that outcome.
Initially an opposition leader called for a postponement which was then put to a vote. It passed with a slim majority of 229 votes in favor and 227 against. However, parliament's president Elzbieta Witek pushed through another vote. That yielded 229 voting against postponing the vote and 225 voting for it to be pushed back.
The initial vote was the fourth vote the government lost in the lower house of parliament. Opponents were quick to say it was an indication that the ruling Law and Justice party did not have enough support to pass the contentious legislation.
The fresh vote had opposition MPs crying foul, and accusing government of paying for votes.
"The parliamentary majority, glued together with the mud of corruption and blackmail, is crumbling before our eyes," former EU chief Donald Tusk, who heads up the opposition Civic Platform party, wrote on Twitter.
"Everything seems to be pointing to us having a minority government," said MP from the Left party, Adrian Zanberg.
The legislation places the country at odds with one of its most important allies, the US, and Wednesday's chaotic proceedings have not gone unnoticed.
State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters: "We are watching these legislative efforts in Poland on media and Holocaust restitution very closely," and added that there had been discussions with senior officials from both countries in the build-up to the vote.
The bill in question forbids non-European-Union citizens and companies from possessing a controlling stake in Polish media outlets. It was introduced last month and is seen as a key test of media freedom and democracy in Poland.
While the government cites the risk of hostile foreign powers such as Russia and China grabbing an ownership stake in Polish media, the target of the law appears to be US-owned TVN, which operates the news channel TVN24 and has Discovery Inc. as its parent company.
Across Poland Tuesday, protesters turned out in support of TVN and against the law to calls of "free media!"
Bill triggers a dismissal, then resignations
Ahead of the proceedings, the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party lost its parliamentary majority.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki dismissed Jaroslaw Gowin, the head of the smaller Accord Party in the coalition who opposes the bill, from the government. On Wednesday, Gowin said his party was formally leaving the coalition, meaning Law and Justice lost its razor thin parliamentary majority.
President Andrzej Duda later dismissed Gowin from his roles as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Development, Labor and Technology, according to the Polish press agency.
Gowin said Accord Party lawmakers received "very politically attractive" offers such as ministerial level posts to remain in the coalition on radio station RMF FM.
"This is a day that will be a test of character, above all the character of Accord politicians," Gowin said.
Also on Wednesday, the Deputy Ministers of Development, Labor and Technology Iwona Michalek, Andrzej Gut-Mostowy, and Grzegorz Piechowiak resigned, Radio Zet News reports. Wojciech Murdzek, the Deputy Minister of Education and Science, also announced his resignation according to TVN24.
Government spokesman Piotr Muller told public broadcaster Polskie Radio 1, "the media law will gain a majority in parliament and I am sure that the United Right government will continue to function."
TVN: A critical voice and the largest US investment in Poland
TVN is the largest ever US investment in Poland, valued at $2 billion (€1.7 billion) at the time of its acquisition by Scripps Network Interactive, which was later acquired by Discovery.
Its flagship nightly news program is watched by millions of Poles and remains a critical voice in a country where many opposition-minded outlets have been squeezed. Critics say the taxpayer funded public TV station has already turned into a mouthpiece for the government.
In the context of the current media climate, the law seeks to push US company Discovery Inc. to sell its controlling stake in TVN.
The National Broadcasting Council in Poland has yet to renew the broadcast license for TVN24. Its current license is set to expire next month.
Jean-Briac Perrette, the president and CEO of Discovery International, said, "an unpredictable regulatory framework should be very concerning for all potential investors in the market.''
Critics charge the law takes aim at press freedom
While the ruling Law and Justice Party has long sought to nationalize media under the pretext of national security, critics charge the bill is much more about message control and bringing critics in line.
The government argues the law would update Polish law to be on par with other countries in Europe such as France and Germany, in limiting foreign ownership in media companies but Poland's reputation for media freedom and as a place for foreign direct investment are on the line.
Critics charge the law brings Poland closer to functioning like Hungary where the autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orban has wrestled near total control of the media as outlets have folded under pressure or been gobbled up by government allies.
Donald Tusk, a former prime minister and senior EU official who returned to the Polish political scene last month as the leader of the opposition Civic Platform, said the law is a "return to communist patterns.''
Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tweeted as the debate in the parliament got underway Wednesday, "As a member of NATO and the European Union, the Polish government must respect the democratic values which underpin its security and prosperity."
Last week, a bipartisan US Congressional group expressed concern "about the ongoing attacks on the free press, independent judiciary and the rule of law in Poland.''
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) opposes the legislation and accuses the Law and Justice Party of using the law "to enable government allies to acquire TVN."
Whereas Poland was in 18th place on RSF's annual World Press Freedom Index in 2015, the year Law and Justice came to power, Poland is now ranked at 64th of 180 countries.
kb,ar/aw,jsi (AP, Reuters)