Polish president vetoes media bill that targeted US company

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FILE - Poland's President Andrzej Duda talks for the media during a news conference with North Macedonia's President Stevo Pendarovski at the presidential office in Skopje, North Macedonia, on Friday, Nov. 19, 2021. Polands president on Monday, Dec. 27, 2021 says he has decided to veto a media bill that would have forced U.S. company Discovery to give up controlling share in TVN, a Polish TV network. President Andrzej Duda noted that the bill was unpopular with many Poles and would have dealt a blow to Poland's reputation as a place to do business. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski, File)

WARSAW – Poland’s president on Monday vetoed a media bill that would have forced U.S. company Discovery to give up its controlling share in Polish television network TVN.

For many, it was a victory for freedom of speech and media independence in a country where democratic norms are being challenged by the nationalist government. The veto was also expected to be welcomed by Washington, which had been seeking to defend the largest U.S. investment in Poland.

President Andrzej Duda noted that the bill was unpopular with many Poles and would have dealt a blow to Poland’s reputation as a place to do business.

“Contracts have to be kept,” Duda said at a news conference in Warsaw where he announced his veto. “For us Poles it is a matter of honor.”

The bill, recently passed by the lower house of parliament, would have prevented any non-European entity from owning more than a 49% stake in television or radio broadcasters in Poland.

Its practical effect would have targeted only one existing company, Discovery Inc., forcing the U.S. owner of Poland’s largest private television network, TVN, to sell the majority or even all of its Polish holdings.

The ruling party, Law and Justice, pushed the legislation and argued that it was important for national security and sovereignty to ensure that no company outside of Europe can control companies that help form public opinion.

Party spokeswoman Anita Czerwinska said party leaders respect the prerogative of the president, who is a party ally, but were “disappointed” in his decision.

“European countries protect their media market against excess foreign capital, considering this area strategic for security and national security,” Czerwinska said, arguing that not protecting that market would lead to “submission to other states (and) their interests.”

Yet many Poles saw the bill as an attempt to silence a broadcaster with an all-news station, TVN24, and an evening news program on its main channel viewed by millions.

Mass nationwide protests were recently held in support of the station and of freedom of speech more broadly. Donald Tusk, the leader of the centrist Civic Platform opposition party who spoke at that demonstration, said Duda's decision showed the importance of pressure from the U.S. — and pressure from the street.

“Let no one say anymore that it is not worth it, that it is impossible, that we cannot do anything. We can and we must," Tusk said on Twitter.

Discovery had threatened to sue Poland in an international arbitration court, saying it would fight for its investment. The network was first bought by another U.S. company, Scripps Networks Interactive, for $2 billion and later sold to Discovery.

It represents the largest ever American investment in Poland and the company now puts TVN's value at $3 billion.

Duda said the bill would have violated the provisions of a Polish-U.S. economic treaty signed in the 1990s, and Poland could have faced possible penalties reaching in the billions of dollars if he had signed it.

Duda said he agreed in principle that countries should limit foreign ownership in media companies, saying many other democratic countries — including the United States, France and Germany — have such legislation.

He said that he would support such legislation that would affect future investments. But he argued that in the case of TVN, the law would have hurt a business already operating legally in Poland.

He also said that he shared the view of many of his fellow Poles that given other problems, including the pandemic and inflation, the bill wasn't necessary right now.

Discovery welcomed Duda's move, saying: “We commend the president for doing the right thing and standing up for core democratic values of a free press and the rule of law, and we want to thank all the viewers and everyone that has supported this important issue.”