By Alicja Ptak
WARSAW (Reuters) -Poland's broadcasting regulator on Wednesday extended an operating licence for the popular U.S.-owned, anti-government news channel TVN24, but questioned if it had the right to continue operating, asking the government for legal clarity.
Critics say TVN24 is a prime target in ruling party efforts to quash media freedom, with opposition politicians calling the regulator's question over the broadcaster's right to operate a way to pander to the ruling nationalists' voter base.
Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has long argued that foreign-owned media distort public debate and do not serve Polish interests. Critics say the government only wants to control the media and curb free speech.
"The resolution has no binding power...but it's a signal to PiS's core electorate that they won't give up in trying to take over the independent press," Jan Grabiec, a spokesperson for Poland's leading opposition grouping Civic Platform, told Reuters.
Since the party took office in 2015, Poland has dropped to 64th place from 18th on the World Media Freedom Index.
It is unclear what the next steps will be or what consequences they might have for TVN24.
The licence of TVN24, which is Poland's most popular news channel, was set to expire on Sept. 26. Its fate was uncertain after the lower house of parliament passed a bill last month to strengthen a ban on firms from outside the European Economic Area controlling Polish broadcasters.
The opposition-led upper house of parliament rejected the media bill, but the leader of PiS signalled the party would try to overturn the rejection before the end of September.
PiS however is fighting to retain its majority in the lower house.
TVN, the parent company of TVN24, is owned by U.S.-based Discovery Inc via a firm registered in the European Union to adhere to the requirements of the ban on non-European firms owning more than 49% of Polish media.
If TVN24 had not received the extension, it was expected to continue operating under a Dutch licence.
Although the regulator extended the licence, it said in a separate resolution that it would ask the government for clearer legislation on the ownership question, as well as legal clarification from the Constitutional Tribunal.
"The news that TVN24 finally has been granted a license to operate in Poland is bittersweet. It proves that there was never any legitimate reason to deny or delay the license, which we applied for 19 months ago," TVN said in an emailed statement.
"However, the fact that the Polish media regulator, KRRIT, is using the resolution to challenge current media ownership rules is concerning and undermines the democratic legislative process itself," it added.
Discovery did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.
(Reporting by Alicja Ptak; Writing by Joanna Plucinska; Editing Alex Richardson and Alistair Bell)