Poland uses state-owned refiner to buy regional media firm

WARSAW (Reuters) - State-controlled Polish refiner PKN Orlen is buying regional newspaper publisher Polska Press from its German owner, bringing more of the local media back into Polish hands.

FILE PHOTO: A man fixes PKN Orlen logo, Poland's top oil refiner, at their petrol station in Warsaw, Poland April 28, 2016. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/File Photo

The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has long argued that foreign media companies have too much influence in Poland, distorting public debate, but critics say the government wants to increase state control over independent media.

In comments emailed to Reuters, PKN Orlen chief executive Daniel Obajtek said the acquisition was a business investment.

“(It) should be treated as an important element supporting sales, which is extremely important in the context of the further development of the PKN Orlen retail network,” he said.

A government spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The move comes as Poland and Hungary, both under investigation by the European Union over their push to curb judicial and media freedoms, are blocking the EU 2021-2027 budget and coronavirus recovery fund over a clause linking access to cash to respect for the rule of law.

Poland has not pressed ahead with media ownership reforms in the past in part due to the fear of igniting further tensions with the EU, officials have told Reuters.

Borys Budka, leader of Poland’s largest opposition party, the Civic Platform, said the move was similar to what has happened in Hungary, where critics say the government has growing influence over the media via owners supportive of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

“Through state-owned companies, with the money of Polish taxpayers, (PiS) is trying to take control of independent media,” he told Reuters by text message.

“How the party’s interference in the media ends can be seen in the example of state television.”

Critics say state broadcaster TVP, and in particular its news channel TVP Info, have become propaganda outlets for the government since it came to power in 2015, and it has faced accusations of fomenting homophobia and anti-Semitism.

Ryszard Czarnecki, a PiS lawmaker in the European Parliament, rejected the suggestion that Polska Press’s takeover would result in unbalanced coverage.

“If the media are German, they are objective, and if they are Polish, they are biased? I reject such thinking,” he said.

Polska Press, currently owned by Germany’s Verlagsgruppe Passau, publishes 20 regional dailies, about 100 local weeklies, several magazines and, a free city newspaper, according to its website.

It generated more than 398 million zlotys ($108 million) in revenue in 2019, PKN Orlen said in a statement, without disclosing the price of the deal.

($1 = 3.6810 zlotys)

Reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, Alicja Ptak and Anna Koper; Writing by Alan Charlish; Editing by David Goodman and Mark Potter