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Polish state oil refiner buying key private media company

WARSAW, Poland — Poland's state-run oil company, PKN Orlen, announced Monday that it was buying Polska Press, a large private media group currently under German control that owns a wide swath of daily and weekly newspapers in the country.

Critics of the right-wing government called it a dark day for media freedom, since it effectively means the government is seizing control of an important publisher of independent news.

The media group takeover comes as democratic standards in the country decline in other spheres, with an erosion of judicial independence under way for five years and after a high court in October tightened an already restrictive abortion law.

There was no immediate comment from the government, but the move is consistent with an effort by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland’s nationalist ruling party, to decrease foreign ownership of the media in Poland.

“The media in Poland should be Polish,” Kaczynski said this summer.

The company's CEO, Daniel Obajtek, announced that Orlen is buying Polska Press from its current owner, Germany's Verlagsgruppe Passau. Orlen is a refiner of oil and the owner of a chain of gas stations which is only now joining the publishing business by taking control of one of the country's largest media publishers.

Obajtek, who was appointed by the ruling party, said the company is expanding its business interests.

Jan Mosinski, a ruling party lawmaker, said it was very good that the publishing company would be controlled by the Polish state, arguing the news produced by the German owner meant that readers in small towns were "subjected to a narrative that was often inappropriate.”

“It is good that now it will be possible to provide information on Poland and explain the directions of the government’s activities,” he said, saying that goes for the current government and any that follow.

Critics of the party, Law and Justice, however, fear that the change in ownership will make it all the more difficult for any other government to be elected.

They see it as a major blow to media freedom after the party has already transformed state TV, radio and other publicly owned media into party mouthpieces used to praise the government and denigrate its opponents.

Since Kaczynski's party won power in 2015, it has spoken of wanting to “re-Polonize,” meaning nationalize many of the foreign-own media companies.

To date, Poland's private media sphere has been varied and dynamic. Government critics fear that Orlen's takeover of the media group, which had been rumoured for months, would move Poland closer to a Hungary-style media landscape. There, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has gained near-total control over the media as private outlets have either folded or come under the control of Orban allies.

“This is a historic moment and, unfortunately, it shows that the authorities decided to take steps similar to those that we could previously observe in Hungary under Viktor Orban,” the human rights commissioner, Adam Bodnar, said in an interview with the Wirtualna Polska portal.

Other independent media companies that will still be standing after the buyout include Gazeta Wyborcza and Rzeczpospolita, the country's leading dailies.

Polska Press's publications mostly serve Polish regions outside of the big cities, a largely conservative electorate that has traditionally supported Law and Justice's vision. Those voters will be crucial in future elections, especially after the abortion ruling has led hundreds of thousands of Poles to protest in past weeks.

Law and Justice has since 2015 been in conflict with the European Union over changes to the judiciary which have given the party greater control over the courts, and created concerns over democratic backsliding.

Polska Press owns more than 20 regional dailies, nearly 120 regional weeklies and many internet portals, reaching an estimated 17.4 million readers in the central European nation of 38 million people.

Vanessa Gera, The Associated Press

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