Current Edition

Poland gives free media a chance

Current edition, Volume Number 35 Number 2 June 2024

Media freedom continues to take a battering in some of the European Union’s post-Soviet member states, with Hungarian media firmly in the grip of Viktor Orban, the country’s strong man, and Robert Fico, Slovakia’s recently elected prime minister bent on taking full control of his country’s public broadcaster. But on the bright side, the Czech media have managed to keep their populists at arm’s length. And now, in Poland, the country’s new pro-liberal government is feeling its way towards rebuilding a media regime in which public service media are impartial and the private sector is free of attempts by government to shape their editorial content.

Poland’s historic shift comes after elections in October 2023 when a coalition of three pro-democracy parties headed by the Civic Platform, led by former European Council chair Donald Tusk, wrested control of the government from the populist Law and Justice (PiS) movement, which had spent the last eight years working to force both public and private media to support its policies. Their task was eased as Poland belongs to a dismal array of east European states where decades of communist rule had stifled the ideal of a free media. And the Soviet regimes had built on the experience of authoritarian pre-Second World War regimes, when strong men had also controlled their media.

The collapse of the Soviet regime from 1989 brought Poland’s media nearly three decades of normality but even then the legacy of the past overshadowed it, and political influence continued to intrude in the media sphere. In 2015, PiS came to power and overwhelmed the public media by swiftly appointing loyalists to key editorial positions, ignoring impartiality standards demanded by law and purging scores of journalists who could not be relied on to follow the PiS line.

From then on, news and current events programmes on public TV and radio ran little else than PiS political messages, brainwashing the party’s supporters with stunts such as running a clip showing Donald Tusk, the then-opposition leader, saying “fur Deutschland” in the main television evening news programme, day after day for weeks on end. Evidently, the message was that the former head of the European Council was a German agent. The clip came from a speech he had made on accepting a prize in Germany. The stratagem worked for viewers who supported PiS in rural areas and the small towns and still believe the present prime minister is a German agent.

The government advertised with friendly papers

Meanwhile, those viewers and listeners who were critical of PiS policies fled to commercial stations such as TVN, owned by Warner Bros, whose news coverage tended to support the opposition with critical coverage of the then-government’s policies. The PiS government’s response was to harass private local and foreign-owned media. TVN had problems renewing its broadcast licence with the regulator, which was controlled by the government. Government advertising was no longer placed with media deemed to be critical of PiS and subscriptions to independent newspapers were cancelled by state sector institutions. During the Covid epidemic, PiS failed to run advisory ads on how to cope with the epidemic in Gazeta Wyborcza, a fiercely critical newspaper. State-owned companies and government ministries brought defamation cases, as well as Slapps (strategic lawsuits against public participation), against critical journalists to curb criticism. In the event, these ploys were unsuccessful and the foreign and domestic privately owned media were able to provide independent news coverage to the general public.

These practices have ended with the new government. But rebuilding a media scene where editors and journalists can simply do their job professionally has revealed different challenges. Currently, the most important is that it is proving hard to build the foundations of a media system that will prove resilient against the threats to media freedom in future if there is a repeat of the polarisation in the media driven by populists that has stifled sensible debate on the future of the country since 2016.

Unfortunately, the recently enacted European Union Media Freedom Act (EMFA) authored by the EU commissioner Vera Jourova has attracted little public interest. The regulation, whose aim is to set legal standards and rules of conduct and build journalists’ will to fight threats to media freedom, was fiercely contested by Polish and foreign publishers, such as Axel Springer, which branded the legislation an “anti-media freedom” act. This campaign saw an almost complete news blackout in Polish opposition newspapers on the progress of the act. When asked why this was, they said: “We don’t believe that the EU can help us when we need it, so why should we bother to write about it?”

But the pioneering act, whose main aim was to give the EU the instruments to intervene whenever media freedom is under threat in member states, could still prove to be a major weapon in the fight for independent media. With the change of government, the threat to privately owned media has waned, even though Maciej Swirski, the head of the KRRiT regulator and a steadfast PiS loyalist, continues the fight for his cause by heavily fining stations such as TVN and TOK FM, an independent talk radio station, for running material which, according to him, transgresses broadcasting laws. Swirski’s term in office expires in 2028.

The future of the public service media is another key issue. Polish Radio and Television had been severely misused by the former administration. When the pro-democracy coalition took power in December last year, they found that the safeguards in law that PiS introduced to keep its nominees in place made simple dismissal of compromised staff impossible. Bartosz Sienkiewicz , the culture minister tasked with making the changes, found that the only legal way to replace the former regime was to put public radio and television into liquidation and have them run by liquidators. This was done. It was the only way, as the PiS legislation could not be revoked because this would require the approval of President Andrzej Duda, a PiS nominee whose term in office ends in 2025. This is also a major stumbling block in passing a new public media law.

One issue is that it is not clear what role there is for an impartial public media in Poland. PiS supporters want to see public media acting as a propaganda arm of the government. When the change made this impossible, they moved in droves to TV Republika, a television station that is owned by the PiS leadership and has employed many of the progandists now dismissed from the PiS-era public media. TV Republika’s audience has peaked at near one million from the mere tens of thousands it had in PiS‘s heyday. Advertising revenues have also risen from 550 zlotys (c£100) for half a minute of airtime in December 2023 to 26,000 zlotys in May 2024.

Meanwhile, supporters of the new ruling coalition have got used to watching the commercial TVN over the past eight years at 19.00 every evening and are loath to switch to TVP, the reformed public broadcaster, at 19.30 for a similar version of what they have already seen. Indeed, if anything, they would want to see “their’’ public media bashing PiS and not the impartial reporting they currently see.

As the weeks pass, a certain equilibrium is being achieved. On the night the polls closed in Poland’s local elections on April 7, 1.8million people watched TVN, the Warner Brothers-owned station, which had retained a distance from PiS when it was in power. That night, 1.6million watched TVP channels, the reformed public broadcaster – although some of these were viewers who had no alternative, as it is Poland’s only free-to-air broadcaster, with almost 100 per cent coverage of the country. Almost 800,000 people tuned in to TV Republika, which is unashamedly a PiS partisan.

Polish media run by ‘old boys networks’

The big question mark is over the medium and long term. At the moment, the people who have been recruited to work for public television are mainly “friends of friends’’. There have been no open competitions to replace the pro-PiS journalists who have resigned or been pushed out. Some key positions have been taken by coalition party loyalists, mainly from the social democratic Left (Lewica) party, others on recommendations from senior figures in Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform party. Andrzej Wyrobiec, a deputy culture minister and a former senior official in the Civic Coalition, is responsible for preparing the new government’s draft media law. Karol Zgódka, the head of the ministry’s legal department who will be doing the donkey work on the draft, has headed the department since 2012, which means he was there at the ministry during the passage and implementation of the regulations that PiS brought in in 2016, which enabled their takeover of public radio and television.

The main battle facing those who want to see an impartial media free of political control in Poland is the fate of public radio and TV. The initial appointments in these media show the new regime continues to want to maintain a measure of control by inserting journalists they can trust into key positions. The new government is not in a hurry to draft a new media law, as it works on the reasonable assumption that President Duda will veto any law that is passed while he is president.

Another barrier is Tusk’s lack of support for the public media in the past. It is said that he has always thought the public media will be more supportive of left-wing policies and that his more free-market attitudes will be favoured by privately owned commercial media. It might well be that he thinks that public media will be more vulnerable to state capture, maybe by left-leaning parties, whatever safeguards against this are built in by new laws.

Thus, even if Tusk is currently on record as saying that public media must be re-established as independent entities, it is always at the back of his mind that a slimmed-down public radio and TV with minimal influence over public opinion would better favour a free-market future for his country. The alternative vision – shared by some journalists’ organisations and journalists who have gone to work in Poland’s new public media, as well as by foreign media freedom organisations – is of media that will be able and willing to provide accurate, inclusive and impartial news to a population whose views, in a democracy, ultimately decide the future of their country.

Krzysztof Bobinski

This is the issue that will be decided in Poland in the coming months. Krzysztof Bobinski is a former correspondent for the Financial Times.

From the same issue