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Poland's president signs controversial media law. Are press freedoms at risk?

The new law, which is widely viewed as the first step toward sweeping reforms intended to overhaul state-run news outlets, has provoked concerns in Brussels.

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    Poland’s President Andrzej Duda speaks during a statement at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw on Dec. 28, 2015. On Thursday he signed a temporary new law that critics say restricts press freedom in the country.
    Czarek Sokolowski/AP
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A new wave of concern for media freedom in Poland rose among European Union leaders and independent journalists after Poland's president signed a temporary new law Thursday that's a step toward giving the government full control of state radio and television.

The legislation will take effect Friday and expires on June 30. By then, a sweeping new law intended to overhaul the state-run broadcasters and the PAP news agency is expected to be in place.

President Andrzej Duda signed the new legislation because he wants state media to be "impartial, objective, and reliable," his aide Malgorzata Sadurska said. She added that the president believes that the private views of journalists currently interfere with the objectivity of information in state media.

The new law allows for the immediate ending of the terms of the heads of state radio and television, and transfers the authority to appoint successors to the treasury minister, from a separate radio and TV committee that oversees the media. It also limits the number of members sitting on the state broadcasters' supervisory and management boards.

The legislation was proposed and put on a fast track for approval by the new conservative ruling party, which has embarked on sweeping state and social reforms, including the new media law, that have raised eyebrows in Brussels.

The European Commission will debate Poland's rule of law on Jan. 13, a step that could eventually result in the country losing its EU voting rights on matters that concern the entire 28-nation bloc. Poland joined the EU in 2004.

EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans said the issue of core democratic principles affected more than just Poland alone, especially considering the authoritarian rule in central and eastern Europe under Soviet domination.

"Looking back over the last quarter of a century, one of the biggest successes of European integration is the transformation of our new member states in Central and Eastern Europe away from dictatorship to fully fledged democracies," Mr. Timmermans said in Amsterdam.

He insisted those principles were "a collective responsibility, not just of the member states, but of the union as a whole."

The new media law has also provoked concern among independent media organizations, which say that it threatens media freedom in Poland.

The "measures taken by the Polish government are contradictory to media pluralism and independence of public service broadcasting, and to democracy in Poland," the European Federation of Journalists said Thursday in a letter to Gunther Oettinger, the European commissioner responsible for media issues who suggested on Sunday that Poland should be put under a special monitoring mechanism.

"They would be in clear contradiction to EU fundamental values," the letter added.

The International Federation of Journalists, with some 600,000 members around the world, said it was "deeply worried" by Mr. Duda's signing of the bill.

The law is a "huge leap backward" that puts an end to independent state media in Poland, it said in a statement to The Associated Press.

Ms. Sadurska said the president is fully aware of the EU concerns, and believes the new law won't be detrimental. She insisted that Duda wants public media to perform their role properly.

The conservative Law and Justice party that took power in November says that state broadcasters are now serving the previous, liberal and pro-EU government.

On Tuesday, the Council of Europe human rights commissioner Nils Muiznieks appealed to Duda not to sign the law.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Thursday that Poland is an "important and full member of the EU" and he didn't want to speculate about the consequences of the steps being taken by the new government in Warsaw.

Foreign Minister Bert Koenders of Netherlands, which currently holds the EU presidency, noted that dialogue was needed with Poland over the matter.

"I have contacted the Polish foreign minister (Witold Waszczykowski) on the importance we attach to a dialogue .... that it does not become a confrontation in the EU," Mr. Koenders told The Associated Press.

Mr. Waszczykowski said earlier this week he requested to meet with an EU diplomat in Warsaw on Friday to hear why the officials were formulating their concerns based on media reports rather than on actual documents and diplomatic channels.

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