In August, Poland’s biggest independent news channel, TVN24, will celebrate 20 years of broadcasting in the central European nation. A month later, it could find itself off air.

TVN SA — part of US media conglomerate Discovery — applied for the channel’s broadcasting licence to be renewed last February. But 17 months later, and less than three months before its current permit expires, it has yet to receive a decision.

MPs from Poland’s ruling conservative-nationalist coalition have insisted that if the new licence is not issued, it will be purely because TVN24 does not fulfil Polish legal requirements. But media executives regard the delay as escalation of the government’s broader drive to pressure independent journalism and the latest instalment of its tussle with a critical broadcaster widely regarded as its bête noire.

“We hold a number of licences and are fully compliant with all Polish regulations,” said one TVN insider. “In the normal course of events we would have received the renewal a long time ago. A licence renewal for another channel that we applied for at roughly the same time was renewed in November last year.”

The insider added: “if it is not renewed by the middle of July, that would be concerning for us, and by September we will have to prepare to pursue options, including moving the business. That’s the reality.”

Demonstrators in Warsaw in February protest against a new tax seen as a threat to independent journalism

Since sweeping to power in 2015, critics say that the coalition, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party (PiS), has reduced Poland’s public broadcaster to a claque, while state-run companies have cut advertising to media groups that do not toe the government line, and funnelled it to those that do.

Earlier this year, the government also proposed a new tax on advertising revenues, sparking a 24-hour protest from more than 40 Polish news groups, which denounced the proposal as a targeted threat to independent journalism.

Yet even against that backdrop, executives say that refusing to renew TVN24’s licence would mark a serious intensification. “I could imagine this is a psychological play, to take this [decision on TVN24] to the last moment. But I can’t believe they would not prolong the licence, because it would cause a major conflict,” said one executive at another media group.

“[Refusing to renew the licence] would be a clear political move. It would destroy a billion dollar investment. And I don’t think that would be good for US-Polish relations.”

Poland’s KRRiT media watchdog did not respond to a request for comment on why a decision on TVN24’s licence had yet to be issued. However, its spokeswoman told Poland’s Wirtualne Media portal last week that the watchdog had asked for information about the impending tie-up between Discovery and ATT’s WarnerMedia unit.

Polish law says that a broadcasting licence can only be granted to companies in which foreign capital has a share of less than 49 per cent. However, it allows this provision to be waived if the headquarters of the direct shareholder of the broadcaster is in the European economic area. Discovery owns TVN24 through Polish Television Holding BV, which is based in the Netherlands.

In recent weeks, some PiS MPs have suggested that this arrangement could fall foul of Polish law. Other observers are sceptical. “I don’t think that there are any formal reasons for not granting this licence. There are rather certain pretexts,” said Tadeusz Kowalski, a professor and media expert at Warsaw university.

“[Refusing to renew the licence would be] a very bad move, because the group of independent media is getting thinner, and that is very worrying. I assess it very negatively. It is a serious threat to the quality of public debate in Poland.”

Since PiS came to power, Poland has fallen from 18th to 64th place in the World Press Freedom Index — below Malawi and Armenia.

As well as the government’s consolidation of its control over the state media, Reporters Without Borders, the organisation behind the ranking, cited the purchase of the local media group Polska Press by state-run oil refiner PKN Orlen as a cause for concern. The transaction will give the oil refiner — run by a close ally of PiS — control of 20 of Poland’s 24 regional newspapers, and almost 120 weeklies.

It also highlighted “a government hate campaign against critics that targeted privately owned TVN in particular” and the government’s proposals for a tax on advertising revenues at a time when media groups’ finances had been hit hard by the pandemic.

In the wake of the 24-hour protest triggered by that plan, the government said that the proposals would be reworked, although no new suggestions have yet been put forward. Few in the media industry expect the current lull to last.

“I think what we see now — that it’s been calmer over the past months — is just a reflection of the government’s own troubles,” said the media executive, referring to months of bickering between the three parties in the ruling coalition.

“There were very much occupied with themselves. But we shouldn’t be blinded by that. Because I think that once this clears, they will get back to their agenda.”