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Polish president vetoes controversial media ownership law

U.S. pressure has forced Poland's president to veto a law targeting a Discovery-owned news outlet critical of Warsaw's ultranationalist right-wing government.

(CN) — Facing stiff pressure from the United States and growing economic turmoil at home, Poland's president on Monday vetoed legislation that critics said sought to silence an American-owned television channel opposed to the ruling right-wing government in Warsaw.

President Andrzej Duda said he could not sign the bill into law over concerns that it would hurt relations with the U.S. and add new strains to Poland's economy, which is reeling from high inflation and the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. has a large military presence in Poland and it is a major ally for Warsaw against Russia, a traditional foe.

By blocking the bill, Duda sends the legislation back to the Sejm, Poland's lower house of parliament. But the prospects of it passing are slim because the ruling ultranationalist Law and Justice party does not command enough votes to pass the two-thirds threshold to override the veto.

Duda is an ally of Law and Justice and has mostly backed its policies, including controversial judicial reforms that are at the center of a major battle between Poland and the European Union. The EU accuses Poland of seeking to politicize the judiciary and remove judges it doesn't like. The row has turned toxic with the Constitutional Tribunal in Warsaw ruling that Poland's laws have primacy over EU law, a finding that has sparked a constitutional crisis.

The U.S. condemned Poland for passing the media bill that restricted foreign ownership of Polish media outlets. In effect, the bill, if it had become law with Duda's signature, would have forced the U.S. conglomerate Discovery to sell a majority of its stake in TVN, one of Poland’s largest private television networks. The network's liberal-left news channel, TVN24, is highly critical of the Law and Justice party.

Law and Justice argued that the media bill was similar to laws in other European countries and that it was meant to stop Polish media from being taken over by companies from undemocratic countries, such as Russian enterprises, and criminal groups. Under the law, companies from outside the European Economic Area – which is made up of EU nations and a handful of neighbors, such as Norway – would not be allowed to hold a controlling stake in Polish media companies.

“We [already] have a lot of problems. We have a pandemic, we have inflation,” Duda said during a televised news conference Monday. “Taking into account these circumstances, the decision was made. I refuse to sign the legislation.”

He said the bill threatened to breach an economic agreement Poland signed with the U.S. in 1990. He said he agreed with the principles in the bill, but told the Sejm to craft it in such a way as to make it acceptable.

Protesters demonstrate in Warsaw on Dec. 19, 2021, after the Polish parliament approved a bill that is widely viewed as an attack on media freedom. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski, File)

Bix Aliu, the U.S. charge d'affaires in Warsaw, praised Duda's veto. He said it showed his “commitment to common democratic values” and protects “the investment climate in Poland.”

In August, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Poland when the Sejm passed a draft of the media bill along with another law restricting Jewish claims to family lands seized after the Holocaust by the then-communist Polish government.

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

“A free and independent media makes our democracies stronger, the Transatlantic Alliance more resilient, and is fundamental to the bilateral relationship,” Blinken said at the time. He warned that if the media law was passed it “could undermine Poland’s strong investment climate.”

The media bill also sparked large protests against the government.

On Monday, Donald Tusk, the leader of the main opposition party Civic Platform, credited pressure from the U.S. and street protesters for forcing Duda's hand.

“Pressure makes sense,” Tusk said on Twitter, urging people to keep up the demonstrations. Parliamentary elections are set for next autumn.

Critics contend the Law and Justice party has become a danger to the EU by seeking to establish an authoritarian state at odds with the bloc's founding principles. It is slammed for seeking to concentrate power among its allies and squashing critical media outlets.

Support for the party has weakened since the pandemic started and fallen to about 31% from a high of 41.6% of voters in early 2020.

Poland has struggled to rein in the coronavirus and recorded among the highest death tolls in Europe with more than 94,000 fatalities linked to the virus. The government has been reluctant to impose lockdowns and it only recently began restricting the unvaccinated. Vaccination rates in Poland are among the lowest in the EU with only about 55% of the population fully vaccinated.

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

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