Poland’s Duda looks to avert US clash by vetoing media law

WARSAW — Polish President Andrzej Duda intervened to head off a clash with Washington on Monday by vetoing a controversial media law that was widely seen as targeting independent broadcaster TVN, owned by the U.S. media giant Discovery. 

On December 17, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) unexpectedly rushed through legislation that would have forced Discovery out by insisting that broadcasters operating in Poland must be majority owned by entities from the European Economic Area.

That hasty move amplified fears about democratic backsliding in Warsaw, drew instant criticism from the U.S. and triggered nationwide street protests. TVN is the country’s biggest independent network and consistently infuriates the government with its critical reporting.

Already locked in a deteriorating rule of law dispute with Brussels, Duda insisted Poland did not need to open another front.

“I share the opinion of most of my fellow countrymen whom I spoke to that we don’t need another disturbing or troubling issue [and] we do not need more disputes,” he said, on delivering his veto.

Duda also cautioned that arbitration over TVN’s rights could lead to Poland being sued for “billions of dollars.”

Under the proposed law, Discovery would have had just six months to sell its controlling stake in TVN.

“One could consider whether this is fair to the company,” Duda said, adding that TVN had its broadcasting concession extended only recently.

The U.S. — a crucial NATO ally — has long called on Duda to veto the proposed legislation.

Bix Aliu, acting U.S. ambassador in Warsaw, said on December 17 that Washington was “extremely disappointed” with the developments and urged Poland’s president to reject the law.  

“Pressure makes sense,” former Polish Prime Minister and former President of the European Council Donald Tusk tweeted in reaction to Duda’s decision.

The law, proposed by the ruling majority led by the PiS party, aimed at banning even indirect control of the media in Poland by entities from outside the EEA. That meant TVN would have been excluded even though it is owned by a Discovery-owned company registered in the Netherlands.

The broadcaster is fiercely critical of the government and acts as a significant counterbalance to the public network TVP, which PiS has turned into an unadulterated propaganda channel.

The PiS-led government does not have anything close to a majority to reject Duda’s veto. Overturning the president’s decision requires a majority of three-fifths with at least half of 460 MPs present. Given that the opposition would mobilize for the potential vote, the government would need 276 votes, but currently it can only count on 228.

Still, the president suggested that ownership structures similar to the ones contained in the rejected law would make sense in the future.

“Limiting ownership in media by non-EEA entities makes sense but they should cover entities entering the market, not the ones already operating on it,” Duda said.

There was no immediate reaction from the government.

PiS Chairman Jarosław Kaczyński, who is Poland’s most powerful politician, referred to Duda’s decision in an interview with the news portal Interia.

“We are concerned only with putting things in order and not with any attack on the free media. I know perfectly well that TVN will remain anti-government,” Kaczyński said.

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