Poland defies US and EU by passing contentious media law

Ruling Polish party Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski speaks during a parliamentary debate in Warsaw on Aug 11, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WARSAW (BLOOMBERG) - Poland risks undermining relations with the US and further antagonising the European Union after the ruling party pushed through a controversial media law in 24 hours of political drama.

Parliament's lower chamber voted 228 to 216 late on Wednesday (Aug 11) to approve the legislation. It's ostensibly to protect broadcasters from takeovers, though targets Discovery, the American owner of Poland's largest private television network. The Bill now goes to the Senate.

The move has been criticised by US senators, the State Department and the EU as an attempt to muzzle independent media. Before the vote, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki fired his deputy, Jaroslaw Gowin, the leader of a smaller party in the governing coalition and an increasingly vocal opponent of the Law & Justice leadership.

Discovery appealed to Poland's Senate and President Andrzej Duda, a ruling party loyalist, to stop the law.

The company said it was discriminatory and called it an attack on freedom of speech. "The outcome should also be deeply concerning to any enterprise investing in Poland," it said.

The episode puts Poland at another critical juncture as the now minority government may have to rely on more radical nationalist forces for support.

Along with Hungary, the EU's biggest eastern state has been in conflict with Brussels in recent years over the independence of judges and the media, yet Law & Justice played up close ties with its Nato allies in Washington.

Morawiecki and his party have said the legislation is vital for the country to prevent Russian or Chinese media taking over a Polish broadcaster.

It also showed Poland was finally standing up for its rights after decades of passively accepting the international order, he said.

"What the Law & Justice is doing lacks any sense and shows it's a party of ideologues, focused entirely on domestic politics where strategic concern plays a secondary role," said Marcin Zaborowski, policy director at GlobSec think-tank in Warsaw.

The vote on Wednesday was delayed after opposition parties won a motion to adjourn the sitting of parliament until next month.

That was then annulled by the speaker on the basis that she had made a mistake when announcing the motion, triggering an outcry from the opposition, which accused the ruling party of breaking parliamentary protocol.

US relations

It all doesn't bode well for Poland's international relations or, potentially, investment in the country with concern over the government's stance on Discovery. The zloty, though, was little changed against the euro.

Ministers boasted about a build-up of US military muscle on Polish soil and close personal relations with Donald Trump, who gave a major foreign policy speech in Warsaw.

But under President Joe Biden ties have cooled, with American officials speaking out on the erosion of Poland's democratic system, its approach to LGBTQ+ rights and, most recently, the unclear fate of investments in the formerly communist country.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Wednesday before the vote that the US was closely following the events in Warsaw and called on the Polish authorities to respect common values such as a free media.

"The transatlantic alliance is based not only on mutual interests when it comes to our shared security but also mutual commitments to shared democratic values," Price said.

"We have urged the government of Poland to demonstrate its commitment to these principles."

Last week, a bipartisan group of senators chided Poland and said the country was on a "troubling trajectory" that could negatively impact defence, business and trade relations with the fellow Nato member.

European money

The exit of Gowin, the pro-business deputy prime minister, meanwhile raises the profile of far-right lawmakers who have questioned the merits of EU membership.

Law & Justice's remaining partner in the coalition is a small group allied with hardline Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who wanted Poland to veto the EU's virus recovery package last year and has broached the topic of the country leaving the 27-nation bloc.

Poland has been the biggest net recipient of EU money, getting more than 130 billion euros (S$207 billion) since it joined in 2004 that transformed the economy. Yet concern over the erosion of rule of law in Poland and Hungary have led to threats of delay payouts from the region's pandemic stimulus fund.

"Gowin's dismissal could radicalise the government," said Barbara Brodzinska-Mirowska, a political scientist from Torun University.

"The division of roles has been clear - with Gowin being a pro-European and liberal voice in the Cabinet and Ziobro to the contrary."

Election question

During the media law vote, several fringe parliamentarians backed the government, while an anti-EU party abstained. That prevented the opposition from gaining the upper hand.

While Law & Justice garnered enough support behind the law, the prospect of a minority government longer term has raised the question of early elections.

Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski - the most powerful politician in the country - said in April, though, that he doesn't predict a new ballot before the scheduled vote in late 2023. A lot may depend on how he assesses the revival of the opposition under Donald Tusk, the former EU president who returned to the front line of Polish politics this year.

Opinion polls show Law & Justice winning the next election, unless Tusk can marshal the opposition to form a unified pro-EU front. Kaczynski opted to stage a snap election in 2007 only to lose power for the next eight years to the Civic Platform party and ushering in Tusk as Prime Minister until 2014.

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