U.S., EU Worried by Poland's Passage of Foreign Media Ownership, Holocaust Property Bills

Leaders from the U.S. and European Union have expressed concern over the passage of two new bills in Poland that address foreign media ownership and property rights for the families of Holocaust survivors, the Associated Press reported.

European Parliament President David Sassoli called the media law, which would force the U.S.-based Discovery Inc. to sell its Polish TVN network, "very worrying."

"If the law comes into force, it will seriously threaten independent television in the country. There can be no freedom without a free media," he said.

The other bill would prohibit former property owners, including Holocaust survivors and their families, from recovering property seized by the country during communist rule, the Associated Press reported.

The bills, which were both passed Wednesday in the lower house of the Polish parliament, still need approval from the Senate and a signature from right-leaning President Andrzej Duda before becoming law.

In a statement released Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the bills were "troubling" and "run counter to the principles and values for which modern, democratic nations stand."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Polish Media Bill Protests
Poland's parliament voted Wednesday in favor of a bill that would force Discovery Inc., the U.S. owner of Poland's largest private television network, to sell its Polish holdings and is widely viewed as an attack on media independence in Poland. People protest outside the Polish parliament after lawmakers passed a bill seen as harmful to media freedom in Warsaw on August 11, 2021. Czarek Sokolowski/AP Photo

The European Union also slammed the media bill on Thursday as undermining media freedom, adding to pre-existing strains between Warsaw and Brussels from the EU's perception of democratic backsliding in member nation Poland.

The two proposals threaten to further isolate Poland, whose geographic position in Central Europe has often left it at the mercy of stronger neighbors, and whose membership in EU and NATO and relationship with the U.S. are considered key guarantees of the country's future security.

Plans for the media bill in Poland triggered nationwide protests by people who fear that their right to independent information is under attack. Among the crowds were older Poles who remember the censorship of the communist era.

The bill's passage drew some angry protesters to the parliament building late Wednesday, including some who verbally assaulted and shoved an opposition lawmaker, Dobromir Sosnierz, while apparently mistaking him for a member of the ruling Law and Justice party.

By contrast, the law which would affect the former property owners — both Jewish and non-Jewish — got almost no media coverage in Poland. But it sparked a fast and angry response from Israel, with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid saying it "damages both the memory of the Holocaust and the rights of its victims."

The EU Commission, which polices EU law, said it will follow the media issue very closely while the EU's top watchdog for democratic values, Vera Jourova, tweeted that the foreign ownership bill sends a negative signal.

"Media pluralism and diversity of opinions are what strong democracies welcome, not fight against," Jourova wrote. "We need a #MediaFreedomAct in the whole EU to uphold media freedom and support the rule of law."

The development looked to many like a crucial move in a step-by-step dismantling of the democratic standards that Poland embraced when it threw off communism in 1989.

Hungary had already set the trail for such an illiberal political direction, and the EU has shown little ability so far to do much to ensure adherence to its values either there or in Poland, both previous models of democratic transformation.

After communism ended more than three decades ago, many foreign investors entered Poland's media market. Poland's ruling party, led by the country's de facto leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has long seen this as a problem and sought to "re-Polonize" the media. The party argues that keeping Polish entities in control of the media is a matter of national security and that such regulations are in line with Western European standards.

However, the party's critics see the efforts to nationalize media as a pretext for silencing independent voices. The effort is well on its way. Soon after winning power in 2015, Law and Justice transformed tax-funded public media into a party mouthpiece. Last year the state oil company bought a large private media group that owned newspapers, magazines and internet portals, and has since moved to change the editors.

Some fear the internet could be next after Kaczynski said in July that "the other side" has the advantage there and "we will still have to strive for this to change this situation."

On Thursday, TVP Info, the public broadcaster's all-news station, declared that the parliament had defended "Polish sovereignty" with its media bill.

Independent journalists have a different view. A letter in defense of TVN had gathered the signatures of over 1,000 Polish journalists on Thursday.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki
Poland’s ruling right-wing party has lost its parliamentary majority after coalition partner Agreement party leader Jaroslaw Gowin announced it was leaving the government, Wednesday Aug. 11, 2021, over a bill viewed as an attack on media freedom. In this file photo dated Friday, June 25, 2021, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki talks to journalists at the European Council building in Brussels. Olivier Matthys/AP Photo