Struggle for Polish media giant: judge suspends takeover by state oil company

The acquisition of a major Polish publisher of newspapers, TV channels and news sites by the Polish state oil company PKN Orlen has been suspended by the courts. This reports the Polish Ombudsman, who challenged the takeover. According to Polish opposition parties and journalists, the purchase would lead to a violation of the freedom of the press in Poland.

It is Polska Press, the largest publisher of local newspapers and news websites. The company is the market leader in almost all voivodeships (provinces) of Poland and reaches 17.4 million Poles monthly, about half of the population.

Prominent politicians from the right-conservative ruling party Law and Justice (PIs) encouraged the takeover by PKN Orlen, arguing that the publishing house was owned by the German media company Verlagsgruppe Passau for the purchase. PIS leader Kaczynski called the acquisition โ€œthe best news I‘ve heard in yearsโ€.

PIS politicians advocate ‘re-polarization‘ of the Polish press. When media companies are in the hands of Polish owners, foreign influence is prevented, so is the reasoning.

Ombudsman against competition authority

The takeover has been temporarily suspended because there is still a lawsuit by the Polish Ombudsman against the Competition Authority. It approved the purchase by the state oil company, because the purchase of Polska Press would not lead to a disparate media landscape.

However, according to the Ombudsman, PIS critic Adam Bodnar, there is insufficient justification for how freedom of the press will continue to be guaranteed. โ€œA company owned by politicians can easily influence the various editors of Polska Press. In this way, media titles can be turned into propaganda channels,โ€ says Bodnar.

The President of the Competition Authority, under the direct authority of the Prime Minister, called Bodnar’s statements โ€œincomprehensibleโ€. In a statement, the authority writes to investigate whether it can take legal action against suspending the media takeover.

Replace Editor-in-Chief

Concerns about the violation of the freedom of the press have not been taken out of the air. Poland has been falling on the world free press rankings of Reporter Without Borders for years. The country fell from place 18 to 62 in five years, and now stands under countries such as Bosnia, Niger and Senegal.

Oil company PKN Orlen claims to have taken over Polska Press not for ideological purposes, but to allow the oil and media sectors to reinforce each other in terms of big data and sales. Critics question that statement, because Orlen owner Daniel Obajtek is known as a PIS supporter. According to the left-wing liberal newspaper Wyborcza, he owes his career to his loyalty to the PIS party.

Obajtek inmits via Twitter that he does not recognise the court decision because the purchase has already been completed. โ€œWe will protect our rights,โ€ he writes.

It is unclear what the suspension of the takeover means for Polska Press. The day-to-day management of the company has already been taken over. Two weeks ago, the editor-in-chief of the media company was sent out and replaced by a journalist from the right-wing populist magazine Gazeta Polska. A few days later, the chairman of the company left.

Concerns from the EU

The European Union has long been concerned about the violation of the rule of law in Poland and Hungary. Last autumn, the two countries blocked the EU budget and the Corona Aid Fund for a long time, due to a link between subsidies and the violation of fundamental EU values. In Hungary, news media have already been taken over by government supporters.

Recently, Polish TV channels went black and front pages of newspapers turned black in a protest against a new media load, which is seen as a way to curb the media. The PIS-faithful public service broadcaster just got a budget increase.