The future of Poland’s three-party coalition government has been thrown into doubt as parliament votes on Wednesday on a controversial media ownership bill that could lead to the country’s largest remaining independent TV station losing its licence.
After a night of protests in Warsaw and 80 other towns and cities against the bill, which opponents see as an attempt to silence an often critical broadcaster, the government said on Wednesday it was confident of winning the vote.
But the outcome is far from certain since the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, on Tuesday fired his deputy, Jarosław Gowin, the leader of the junior coalition member Accord, for criticising the law, prompting the party to formally leave the government.
“I am counting on it that questions related to the media law will gain a majority in parliament and I am sure that the United Right government will continue to function,” the government spokesman Piotr Müller told public radio.
The 13 MPs who formally belong to the Accord group in the 460-seat lower house of parliament have been increasingly at odds with the main partner in the United Right coalition, the populist Law and Justice (PiS) party, and their departure deprives the government of its one-vote majority.
But it does not automatically imply the PiS-led government’s collapse, which would require a formal vote of no confidence in parliament. Muller said he was confident “enough MPs in parliament will support the beneficial reforms we propose”.
Observers said PiS would try to persuade individual Accord MPs to break the party line and would also seek to win enough independent MPs to secure a majority, with Polish media reporting cash and other inducements were on offer.
Gowin said his party was leaving the government “with our heads held high” after expressing deep disagreements over planned tax changes – the so-called “Polish deal”, intended to win the government re-election in 2023 – and the media bill.
If passed, the broadcast law would ban prohibit any TV station from being majority-owned by companies outside the European Economic Area, forcing the US Discovery group to sell most of its stake in TVN, Poland’s main private network.
“This law clearly violates the principle of media freedom,” Gowin said, adding that the change would “push us towards a confrontation with the United States, which is our most important ally from the point of view of defence”.
The opposition Civic Platform, led since July by the former Polish prime minister and European Council president Donald Tusk, is determined to defeat PiS and has seized on media freedom as an issue that could unite a broad opposition alliance.
Radosław Sikorski, Tusk’s former foreign minister and a Civic Platform MEP, tweeted on Wednesday: “Our parliament will today be voting to disenfranchise TVN, Poland’s largest, American-owned independent TV station. If the bill passes, we will likely cross the point of no return toward a kleptocratic autocracy.”
The government denies the measure is aimed at any one broadcaster, saying it seeks to prevent potential media acquisitions by non-EU countries such as Russia and China, and has rejected proposals to restrict the ownership ban to non-OECD countries.
But the move follows a sustained government drive to control Poland’s media in which public service outlets such as the state-run TVP television station become propaganda organs for the ruling party, while private, independent media have been steadily driven out of business.
Washington has urged Warsaw to rethink, saying the proposed law would inevitably harm “defence, business and trade relations” between Poland and the US. Hundreds of Polish journalists and editors have also signed an open letter calling on the government to halt “the destruction of media freedom in our country”.