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Polish government targets US TV channel

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has spared no effort to reduce a once strong media landscape. After consolidating his control over public broadcast media, he embarked on a campaign to “re-colonize” private media using licensing laws, tax laws and attacks on journalists.

Now he is targeting the Polish-American television channel TVN, which offers a view of the world in conflict with that of the right-wing government.

Why we wrote this

A diverse media landscape is essential for a well-functioning democracy. But the Polish government has silenced dissenting voices, with its next big target: a US-owned television network.

Popular with young people and educated elites in Poland’s large cities, TVN’s programming offers a socially liberal worldview and – crucial to the functioning of a democratic society – escapes government criticism. A media reform bill – discussed this week by the Senate, the upper house of Poland’s parliament – would ban foreign possession of media.

“This is a key pillar of this media ecosystem, so if it can be due to government meddling and meddling, then virtually any other medium can fall,” Jamie Wiseman said, head of advocacy at the Vienna International Press Institute. “It’s also backed by American money, which is incredibly influential in the country, so if PiS can be successful here then no other independent media outlet is safe.”

Warsaw, Poland; and Basel, Switzerland

When journalist Jacek Pałasiński moved to Warsaw around 15 years ago during the heyday of the Polish private television channel TVN, Poland laid the foundations for a diverse media landscape.

“The atmosphere was phenomenal,” says Pałasiński of TVN24, Poland’s leading indigenous news channel. “We had a sense of mission; we were creating this station for society. It was a dream place to work.

The mood has changed.

Why we wrote this

A diverse media landscape is essential for a well-functioning democracy. But the Polish government has silenced dissenting voices, with its next big target: a US-owned television network.

Today, TVN is in the crosshairs of the Polish government, dominated by the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, which came to power in 2015. A bill on media reform – under consideration this week by the Senate, the upper house of the Polish parliament – would ban foreign ownership of media, such as US ownership of TVN. Called Lex TVN, it could force the network to cede its ownership and cost its license to the TVN24 news channel.

“The media law is directed against TVN; there is absolutely no doubt about it, ”says Pałasiński, now retired after hosting his own show on TVN for 15 years. “Now at TVN24 there is this terrible preoccupation with not saying a word too much. There is a lot of self-control; everything has to be documented from three sources due to political pressure.

The ruling party in Poland has spared no effort to reduce a once strong media landscape. After consolidating its control over public broadcast media, the PiS embarked on a campaign to “re-colonize” private media using licensing laws, tax laws and attacks on journalists. This prospect has raised fears that Poland is trying to emulate the media market capture strategies pioneered in Vladimir Putin’s Russia and perfected in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.

The Discovery Network retaliates by establishing a presence in the Netherlands and promising legal action based on a 1994 US-Polish bilateral investment agreement. With an estimated value of over $ 1 billion, the network represents the largest American investment in Poland, a NATO ally, and it offers a worldview that conflicts with that of the right-wing government. Removing it would reduce government scrutiny and deal a blow to the opposition.

TVN24, whose studio is shown here, is one of the few major broadcasters in Poland where criticism of the Polish government, led by the Law and Justice party, can still be heard publicly.

“This is a key pillar of this media ecosystem, so if it can be due to government meddling and meddling, then virtually any other medium can fall,” Jamie Wiseman said, head of advocacy at the Vienna International Press Institute. “It’s also backed by American money, which is incredibly influential in the country, so if PiS can be successful here then no other independent media is safe.”

A stronghold for independent journalism

Popular with young people and educated elites in Poland’s large cities, TVN’s programming offers a socially liberal worldview and – crucial to the functioning of a democratic society – escapes criticism from the government. There is no lack of controversial subjects to tackle. Poland disagrees with the European Union on LGBT issues, the rule of law and press freedom.

“The group’s encrypted satellite channel TVN24 has become one of the last strongholds of independent journalism and a forum for the opposition,” explains Tadeusz Kowalski, professor of journalism at the University of Warsaw.

“It is the only major place where Poles can still access critical coverage and hear the views of politicians and opposition parties, can see investigative reports that would not be reported by pro media. -government and can hear about government scandals, ”agrees Mr. Wiseman of the International Press Institute.

Compare this with the evolution of Polish public broadcasters under PiS. Previous governments – on both sides of the political spectrum – had influence over the political leanings of public broadcasters, but state media professionals could live up to journalists’ standards. Not anymore.

When former public television presenter and journalist Maciej Orłoś travels to smaller towns, government supporters always ask him where they can watch it now. The answer is online – one of the few spaces where independent media still thrive in this central European country that has plunged in the press freedom rankings.

After working for 25 years at the public television channel TVP, Mr. Orłoś now runs his own programs on YouTube and Facebook. Giving up the spotlight, he explains, was a decision motivated by his refusal to be an instrument of government propaganda that had become so aggressive that it reminded him of the communist era.

“I did not think that we would ever experience such manipulation in democratic Poland, which is a member of the EU,” said Orłoś. “What is happening in the public media is … scandalous … sowing the language of hatred, deepening divisions in society, failing to apply journalistic principles.”

Media freedom advocates and political analysts agree with him that TVP has become a government mouthpiece conveying the conservative values ​​of PiS. Under his rule, Poland rose from its highest ranking – 18th – in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom ranking in 2015, to 64th out of 180 countries last year.

Slawomir Kaminski / Agencja Gazeta / Reuters

Lawmakers attend a parliamentary committee session on an amendment to Lex TVN that would strengthen the ban on non-European companies controlling Polish broadcasters, in Warsaw, Poland, August 11, 2021.

“These ideas and values ​​are in brief: God, honor, homeland, Catholic faith, Catholic church, family,” explains Mr. Orłoś, who left TVP in 2016. “[And there is] the national and patriotic theme: to say that we Poles are great, important, and that no one will tell us what to do, especially not the EU.

This narrative also creeps into entertainment on TVP. Invited to participate in TVP’s “Ten to One” quiz, Adam Miśkiewicz, a young engineer, wore a small pin with a heart and a rainbow flag on his jacket – a symbol of the LGBTQ community, which made the object of government repression.

He says he was forced to remove it on questionable grounds that the pin could be interpreted as advertising for the Polaroid company. “I pulled out the pin because the atmosphere was getting bad,” says Miśkiewicz. “There is a kind of pre-programmed attitude among TVP employees that there are things that absolutely cannot be broadcast, like the LGBT symbol.”

Mr Miśkiewicz says he and his friends log on to TVP just to laugh at the government’s propaganda. But the anti-LBGTQ rhetoric broadcast in the public media took a heavy toll on his personal life. His parents, both PiS voters, still struggle to accept his sexual orientation.

“The message from PiS to which they succumb is that homosexuality is the destruction of the family,” he says. “If a march for equality is broadcast on television, it is broadcast through the prism of naked perverts who want to terrorize” and sexually abuse children, he says. “My parents have never been to [an equality] March; they don’t see what it looks like, [so] they succumb to this message.

And after?

The media reform bill sparked dozens of protests and became a flashpoint for political debate – separating even a minor partner from the ruling coalition. And even if it is adopted, it is not obvious that it contributes to strengthening the protections invoked to justify it. Supporters say this will shield the nation from foreign influence and disinformation, highlighting the threat from Russia and China (even if a US-owned channel is the hardest hit).

But “there are already many other guarantees that guarantee this security,” said Kuba Karyś, leader of the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD), a pro-European civic group. “If TVN posed a threat to state security, its license would be revoked. It is a purely political fight.

“This argument follows the grassroots populist rhetoric about the external enemy and internal elites used by the PiS since the 2015 presidential campaign,” says Joanna Maria Stolarek, director of the Warsaw office of the German think tank Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung .

The successful passage of the bill is not guaranteed. The Senate is expected to oppose the media bill and, more importantly, PiS-endorsed President Andrzej Duda has suggested he would veto the bill. The PiS, analysts say, could muster enough votes to bypass the Senate if the bill goes to the lower house. But it lacks the qualified majority necessary to override a presidential veto.

“If the bill is blocked now, Law and Justice will look for another pretext to silence the independent media,” warns Pałasiński.

Mr Karyś is more optimistic, noting that the fate of TVN has sparked a wider debate on press freedoms, sparked protests in more than 100 cities and brought together opposition parties. The battle is nothing short of existential.

“The world is woven with stories. “Something that hasn’t been said doesn’t exist,” he says, quoting Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk. “If we deprive people of information important to political and social life, they will cease to exist.”


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Jacob C.

The author Jacob C.

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