By Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk and Pawel Florkiewicz
WARSAW -Poland’s president vetoed a media bill that critics said aimed to silence a Discovery-owned news channel critical of the government, citing worries about the strain the law would put on relations with the United States.
The move allows NATO-member Poland to sidestep a potentially explosive row with Washington at a time of heightened tension in eastern Europe amid what some countries see as increased Russian assertiveness.
However, the decision means that a project voted through parliament by ruling nationalists Law and Justice (PiS) has been blocked by a president elected as their ally.
President Andrzej Duda said in a televised statement on Monday that if the law came into force it could violate a treaty signed with the United States on economic and trade relations.
“One of the arguments considered during the analyses of this law was the issue of an international agreement that was concluded in 1990… this treaty speaks about the protection of investments,” he said.
“There is a clause which says that media-related investments may be excluded, but it concerns future investments.”
Unexpectedly rushed through parliament this month, the legislation would have tightened rules around foreign ownership of media, specifically affecting the ability of news channel TVN24, owned by U.S. media company Discovery Inc, to operate.
TVN24‘s parent, TVN, is owned by Discovery via a firm registered in the Netherlands in order to get around a ban on non-European firms owning more than 49% of Polish media companies. The law, which drew nationwide protests, would have prevented this workaround.
‘DIFFERENCE IN APPROACH‘
“We note with appreciation and joy the decision of the President of the Republic of Poland, Andrzej Duda, who spoke in favour of the freedom of the media and the right of viewers to choose,” TVN Grupa Discovery said in an emailed statement.
PiS lawmaker Joanna Lichocka told public broadcaster Polskie Radio 24 it was “surprising” Duda had not referred to loopholes in the law regarding foreign ownership of media companies in the justification of his decision.
“I would not see it in terms of a betrayal, but a difference in approach to what is right for the Republic of Poland,” she said.
PiS has long argued that foreign media groups have too much power in Poland, distorting public debate.
However, critics say that moves against them seek to limit media freedom and are part of an increasingly authoritarian agenda that has put Warsaw at loggerheads with the European Union.
Duda said that he generally believed limiting foreign ownership of media but that any regulation should concern future investments in the sector, not current owners.
“There is also the issue of media pluralism, of freedom of speech… I took this element into serious consideration,” he said.
The U.S. charge 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”.