Polish ruling coalition collapses amid rift over media bill

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s right-wing ruling coalition has collapsed after a small coalition partner announced Wednesday that it was leaving the government amid a rift over legislation it views as an attack on media freedom.

The media bill, which is scheduled for an afternoon vote, would prevent non-European owners from having controlling stakes in Polish media companies. It is viewed as a crucial test for the survival of independent media in the former communist nation, coming six years into the rule of a populist government that has chipped away at media and judicial independence.

After a deputy prime minister who is the head of the Agreement party expressed his opposition to the bill and other government plans, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki fired him from government on Tuesday. Agreement party leader Jaroslaw Gowin had said he viewed the legislation as an attack on media diversity.

Gowin’s party, which was viewed as the most moderate partner in the conservative three-party coalition that has governed Poland since 2015, said Wednesday that it was formally withdrawing. The party holds 13 seats in the 460-seat Sejm, the lower house of parliament, and most of its lawmakers plan to stay loyal to Gowin.

Polish media reported that the coalition’s largest party, Law and Justice, was trying to win over some Agreement members who might be wavering.

A vote still was anticipated on the media amendment at the center of the dispute. The government’s spokesman expressed confidence Wednesday in its passage. The measure was expected to pick up the needed votes from some from opposition nationalist lawmakers.

Law and Justice has long sought to nationalize the media, claiming the policy is for national security reasons. The party has cited the risk of hostile powers like Russia and China influencing public debate in Poland.

The European Union has accused the Law and Justice-led Polish government of defying the EU’s democratic values. But the 27- member bloc has had few tools for altering either Warsaw’s course, or that of authoritarian Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, under whom media diversity has been sharply curtailed.

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The bill set to be voted on Wednesday is widely viewed as a effort to silence an independent, U.S.-owned television broadcaster that has exposed government wrongdoing as the ruling party faces weakening support — and a parliamentary election scheduled in two years.

If it passes, the bill would require American company Discovery Inc. to sell its controlling stake in TVN, a network with many channels that operates Poland’s all-news station TVN24 and has a flagship evening news program watched daily by millions.

Critics say they fear the bill, if passed, would mark a huge step away from democracy, and the ideals fought for by Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement in the 1980s.

“A vote for taking over TVN will be a vote for an anti-Western dictatorship with impunity for thieves,” Radek Sikorski, a former Polish foreign minister, said. “We all know it, and so do the PiS (Law and Justice) lawmakers. I did not think they were capable of such a betrayal of the ideals of Solidarity.”

Protests against the media amendment were held in dozens of cities and towns in Poland on Tuesday. Speakers voiced their fear that eliminating TVN as an an independent voice would bring back a level of censorship that many Poles still remember from communism.

“I am afraid that there will be censorship, that it will be followed by the lack of democracy, simply a totalitarian state,” protester Lucyna Kiderska said in Warsaw. “Slowly, slowly we will come back to the past.”

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Rafal Niedzielski contributed to this report.

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