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UPDATE: US welcomes move by Polish president to veto disputed media bill

28.12.2021 10:40
The United States has welcomed a move by the Polish president to veto a controversial media bill slammed by critics at home and abroad.
Polish President Andrzej Duda.
Polish President Andrzej Duda.Photo: PAP/Andrzej Lange

President Andrzej Duda said on Monday he has decided to veto legislation sponsored by Poland’s ruling conservatives and aiming to prevent non-European owners from holding controlling stakes in domestic media firms.

“I refuse to sign the bill ... and am returning it to the Sejm [lower house of parliament] to be reconsidered,” the Polish president said at a press conference.

"This means I am vetoing the legislation," he added.

Polish President Andrzej Duda. Polish President Andrzej Duda. Photo: PAP/Andrzej Lange

Washington had urged Duda to use his veto.

The White House said in a statement that US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on Monday "conveyed President Biden’s appreciation for Polish President Duda’s veto ... of a controversial media amendment, noting that this sent a positive signal just before Poland takes over the Chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on January 1."

The US chargé d'affaires in Warsaw, Bix Aliu, thanked Duda on Twitter "for leadership and commitment to common democratic values and for protecting the investment climate in Poland."

'Victory for the Polish people'

US media giant Discovery, the owner of Poland’s TVN Group, which operates the country’s most prominent private news channel TVN24, said in a statement that Duda's veto was "a victory for the Polish people."

"We commend the president for doing the right thing and standing up for the democratic values of a free press and the rule of law," Discovery added.

Meanwhile, Anita Czerwińska, a spokeswoman for Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, has voiced disappointment with Duda's decision.

"In our opinion, the media law requires clarification so that the law is applied in accordance with the same practice as in other countries," she told state-run news agency PAP.

Poland's parliament could vote to overturn the president's veto, but Czerwińska's party does not have the required majority in the legislature.

Anita Czerwińska, a lawmaker with Poland's ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party. Anita Czerwińska, a lawmaker with Poland's ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party. Photo: PAP/Marcin Obara

'Protection of investment'

Duda said in a televised statement that if the law came into force it could violate a treaty with the United States on economic and trade relations.

"One of the arguments considered during the analysis of this law was the issue of an international agreement that was concluded in 1990," he said.

"This treaty provides for the protection of investment projects," he added.

Duda's veto of the controversial plan allows NATO member Poland to sidestep a potentially explosive row with the United States at a time of heightened tension in eastern Europe amid what some countries see as increased Russian assertiveness, the Reuters news agency reported.

Duda told reporters he shared worries by some Poles about freedom of speech and that signing the bill into law could harm his country's relations with the United States.

Duda, who is an ally of the country's ruling conservative government, had previously said that takeovers of foreign-owned media groups should take place on market terms and not with "forced solutions," in a sign he could use his power to veto the bill, news agencies reported.

His announcement on Monday came after a US State Department spokesman said earlier this month that Washington was "deeply troubled" over the controversial Polish bill.

'Sanctity of contracts'

After Polish lawmakers voted in favour of the plan in mid-December, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement that the United States was "deeply troubled by the passage in Poland ... of a law that would undermine freedom of expression, weaken media freedom, and erode foreign investors confidence in their property rights and the sanctity of contracts in Poland."

The legislation, which sought to strengthen a ban on companies from outside the European Economic Area controlling Polish broadcasters, passed with 229 votes in favour, 212 against and 11 abstentions in a final vote in Poland's parliament on December 17.

The US State Department at the time called on Duda to "reaffirm his past statements about respecting the shared democratic norms that underpin our relationship and his commitment to defend the constitutional principles of freedom of speech, freedom to engage in economic activity, property rights, and equal treatment under the law."

The US State Department statement said: "We strongly encourage him to respect these norms and commitments in regard to this legislation that will severely affect media freedom and the foreign investment climate in Poland, if it is allowed to become law."

It added: "A free and independent media strengthens our democracies, makes the Transatlantic Alliance more resilient, and undergirds our bilateral relationship. We look forward to working with the Government of Poland to advance our shared priorities on the basis of democratic values and respect for fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression. Now is the time for solidarity among Allies."

During emotional debates in parliament, opposition MPs decried the bill as an attack on media freedoms and an attempt to gag TVN24, the US-owned news channel critical of the government.

Photo: Photo: PAP/Darek Delmanowicz

Critics also warned that the controversial new regulations could harm US investment in Poland and sour Warsaw's relations with Washington.

The European Commission said the bill was sending another negative signal about the rule of law and respect for democratic values in Poland, the Reuters news agency reported.

A group of prominent US senators in the summer warned the Polish government against pursuing legislation that they say would infringe on a free, independent media and jeopardize US media investment in Poland.

Earlier this month, thousands of people protested across Poland in defence of media freedoms, objecting to the plan approved by parliament.

'Views that may threaten Poland's security'

Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in July defended the bill, saying that an effort to tighten foreign ownership rules for media firms was a “perfectly normal” legislative move.

Deputy Prime Minister Jacek Sasin said the proposed new media rules were designed to provide “tools to protect the media market from an aggressive takeover by Russian or Chinese capital."

He told reporters in the summer that the "mass media should not become a mouthpiece for spreading views that may threaten Poland's security.”

Poland’s governing conservatives have long argued that foreign entities own too much of the country’s mass media and distort the public debate.

'Issue of media pluralism, freedom of speech'

When announcing his veto on Monday, Duda told reporters he believed that "generally limiting the possibility of holding shares or stocks in media companies is sensible when it comes to foreign capital."

He said he shared the view that the proposed new rules "should be introduced in Poland, but for the future."

He added that the proposed legislation concerned "entities already present in the market" and "there is also the issue of media pluralism, of freedom of speech."

"When taking my decision, I took this element into serious consideration," he told the press conference.


Source: PAP, TVP Info, Reuters

Click on the audio player above for a report by Radio Poland's Michał Owczarek.