WARSAW – Poles flocked to city centers across the country Sunday to defend a U.S.-owned television network that is being targeted by the country's right-wing government and to protect media freedom in a European Union nation where democratic norms are eroding.
Among the protesters were older Poles who decades ago resisted the country's communist regime and who fear that the democracy that they helped usher in is now being lost. Many Poles believe Poland's populist right-wing government is turning the country away from the West and adopting an authoritarian model closer to that of Turkey or Russia with attempts to exert political control over the courts and silence critical media.
Donald Tusk, the leader of the main opposition party, called on Poles to show solidarity and change their leadership.
"Let’s sweep this power away!" Tusk, a former Polish prime minister and a former EU president, told the crowd in Warsaw.
The protests were called after the parliament on Friday unexpectedly passed a bill that would force Discovery Inc. to sell its controlling share of TVN, Poland’s largest television network.
The lower house of parliament had voted for it in the summer but it was vetoed by the Senate. Without any notice, the parliament suddenly brought the bill back and the lower house overrode the Senate's veto.
The fate of the bill now lies with President Andrzej Duda. The main protest on Sunday took place in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw, with demonstrators demanding that Duda veto the bill.
Government leaders have defended the legislation by arguing that it is important for national security to ensure that no company outside of Europe can control companies that help form public opinion.
TVN operates an all-news channel TVN24 and its main channel, TVN, has a nightly evening news program viewed by millions that offers critical reporting of the government. Critics believe Poland's right-wing government is merely moving to silence an outlet that seeks to hold power to account.
A string of speakers on Sunday accused authorities of attacking Poland's democratic foundations, and the crowds chanted “Free media!”
Jarosław Kurski, deputy editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, a liberal newspaper that has uncovered a string of government scandals and been sued many times by government allies, accused the ruling party of seeking to silence the media in order to steal Poland's next elections, which are scheduled in 2023.
“The mafia has taken over the country. They want to master all elements of public life,” Kurski said.
The United States, a close ally of Warsaw, had urged lawmakers not to pass the law. The U.S. charge d'affaires, Bix Aliu, said the U.S. was “extremely disappointed” by the passage of the bill and urged Duda “to use his leadership to protect free speech and business.”
Duda, who is allied with the ruling party, in the summer indicated that he would not support it, but on Friday he said he still needed to analyze it.
A protester in Warsaw, Joanna Glowczyk Zobek, said the authorities probably wouldn’t care about the protests, “but let the world see that in Poland there are not only supporters of Law and Justice, supporters of dull propaganda, there are also normal people who want to be citizens of Europe and who want to have good relations with the whole world.”
TVN launched an online petition Sunday calling on Duda to veto the bill, which by the evening was signed by 2 million people in the country of 38 million.
“The attack on media freedom has far-reaching consequences for the future of Poland,” the appeal reads. “Mutual relations with the USA, the greatest ally and guarantor of our country’s security, are being destroyed. We cannot allow it!”
Discovery also vowed in a statement to “relentlessly fight for our business.”