Photographer: Bartek Sadowski/Bloomberg

Poland's Planned Media Revamp May Force Some Foreign Owners Out

  • New rules to measure market share in media, minister says
  • Legislation may be presented in October, approved this year

Poland’s government is planning to change media rules in a way that may force some foreign owners out of the country, potentially triggering deeper friction between the government and the European Union.

Poland’s conservative ruling Law & Justice party, which has clashed with the EU over changes it has made to state media and courts, will probably push through the laws this year, Deputy Culture Minister Pawel Lewandowski said in an interview. Lewandowski, who’s working on the bill, said the measures would stop short of “re-Polonizing” the nation’s media and instead impose rules limiting ownership on groups whose cross-platform holdings and market share are deemed “dominant.”

The plan may trigger a dispute over ownership rights and deepen concerns about rule of law the EU’s largest eastern state, which is the subject of the bloc’s first-ever probe into whether a member is backsliding on democracy. Law & Justice has repeatedly clashed with media outlets, including those owned by Germany’s Ringier Axel Springer Media AG and U.S.-based Scripps Network Interactive Inc., which are often critical of its government.

“The goal is to increase the pluralism of opinions,” Lewandowski told Bloomberg on Friday in Warsaw. “Civilized states don’t give major shares in media markets into foreign hands and -- while our goal isn’t re-Polonization -- I’m aware the change in regulation may result in some owners falling into a concentration index and having to withdraw from the market.”

Foreign Companies

Lewandowski’s comments underline a shift in rhetoric from Law & Justice, whose leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, originally set out a vision that saw Polish media taking majority stakes in outlets currently owned by foreigners. Lewandowski declined to give further details on the bill.

The legislation could affect a number of companies. Germany’s Bauer Media Group controls Poland’s biggest independent radio broadcaster RMF FM and one of the country’s top web portals, Axel publishes the biggest tabloid, Fakt, as well as the Polish edition of Newsweek and the web portal and television Onet. A unit of Verlagsgruppe Passau GmbH also controls about 20 regional newspapers and Scripps, which owns television channels in Poland, was in July taken over by Discovery Communications Inc.

Deviation from a “stable, reliable and non-discriminatory regulatory environment” would be “a source of concern, but so far no step has been made that would alter that,” Scripps said in July. A spokeswoman for Ringier Axel Springer in Warsaw wasn’t available for comment. Publicly-traded Agora SA may also need to make some adjustments in holdings that include the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper, TV channels, radio broadcasters and online portals. The bill is “a major regulatory concern,” CEO Bartosz Hojka said on Aug. 11.

‘Fake News’

The ownership of such cross-holdings in media platforms will be under regulatory scrutiny if they are seen as having a dominant position that needs to be reduced, Lewandowski said. 

“If there are three, four big media groups on the market, they are able to impose opinions” and “thus influence events, which is not in the country’s interest,” he said. “They can even provoke riots if one medium publishes fake news on all of its platforms.”

After winning 2015 elections, Law & Justice took direct control of Poland’s state media, installing a party member to run state television. It has complained private media paint a biased picture of the domestic political conflict and support the opposition. Lewandowski said he sees no grounds for foreign criticism, arguing that any legal changes will comply with the EU rules, provide a phase-in period for investors, and won’t targeting owners from specific countries.  

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