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Media, Holocaust laws in Poland draw US condemnation

The secretary of state took forceful aim at two new Polish laws: one that seeks to restrict foreign media ownership, and another that restricts Jewish claims to lands seized after the Holocaust during the country's communist era.

(CN) — Politics in Poland are being reshuffled after the parliament in Warsaw, dominated by a radical right-wing Catholic nationalist party, pushed through legislation that upsets both its moderate coalition partners and the United States, traditionally a strong ally of Poland.

The Sejm, the Polish parliament in the capital Warsaw, became a scene of large-scale protests, drama and high-stakes politics this week that culminated with the sacking on Tuesday of Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Gowin, the 59-year-old leader of a moderate conservative junior coalition party called Agreement.

Gowin was opposed to a tax plan that benefits low-income families and pensioners at the expense of independent workers. Instead of backing down on its tax plans, the ruling Law and Justice party threw down the gauntlet and fired Gowin, opening a major rift and endangering its slim majority in the Sejm.

After blowing up its coalition with Gowin, the Law and Justice party, with the support of another radical right-wing party, proceeded to pass controversial legislation late Wednesday that upset the U.S.

The Sejm passed a new law that severely restricts Jewish claims to family lands seized after the Holocaust by the then-communist Polish government. The parliament also approved draft legislation to restrict foreign ownership of Polish media.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken loudly condemned both pieces of legislation on Thursday.

In a statement, Blinken urged Polish President Andrzej Duda not to sign the bill restricting people from seeking restitution for lands taken from them and their families during Poland's communist era.

“A comprehensive law for resolving confiscated property claims is needed to provide some measure of justice for victims,” Blinken said. “Until such a law is enacted, the pathway to compensation should not be closed for new claims or those pending decisions in administrative courts.”

People protest Wednesday night outside the Polish Parliament in Warsaw after lawmakers passed a bill seen as harmful to media freedom. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Israel previously summoned the Polish ambassador over the proposed law and reiterated its disapproval Thursday.

“I condemn the legislation that was passed in the Polish Parliament today, which damages both the memory of the Holocaust and the rights of its victims,” Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said.

Blinken said he was also “deeply troubled” by the Sejm's approval of draft legislation that restricts foreign ownership of Polish media. Blinken said the proposed law targets TVN24, a popular independent news channel in Poland critical of the Law and Justice government and owned by Discovery Inc., the U.S. media giant.

Blinken said the bill “targets the most watched independent news station, which is also one of the largest U.S. investments in the country.”

“This draft legislation would significantly weaken the media environment the Polish people have worked so long to build,” Blinken said. “A free and independent media makes our democracies stronger, the Transatlantic Alliance more resilient, and is fundamental to the bilateral relationship.”

He warned that if the media law is passed it “could undermine Poland’s strong investment climate.”

“These pieces of legislation run counter to the principles and values for which modern, democratic nations stand,” Blinken said.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki at the European Council building in Brussels in June 2021. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys, FILE)

The Law and Justice party has been a major thorn in the side of European Union leaders since 2015 when it won Polish elections and became the first government with a clear parliamentary majority in post-communist Poland.

Since then, the right-wing nationalist party has passed a series of laws and measures that critics say undermine the rule of law and target opposition voices. The EU is fighting Poland over a number of issues, most emphatically efforts by Law and Justice to remove judges it doesn't like.

All this political turmoil could lead to early elections because of the split with Gowin. National elections aren't due until 2023, but if Law and Justice and its other junior partner, the Catholic nationalist United Poland party, can't pass legislation then elections become a real possibility. To get legislative business done, they will need to win votes from Gowin's Agreement party and independent members.

The political landscape has become supercharged also with the reentry into domestic politics of Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister who until recently served as the president of the European Council, the EU body made up of heads of state.

Tusk is a charismatic and sharp-tongued leader with a lot of support in Poland who enjoys a good reputation across Europe. He recently reentered Polish politics and took up the leadership of his old party, the centrist Civic Platform.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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