Poland fines US-owned TV station for “biased” report on pope’s response to child sex abuse

Poland’s broadcasting regulator, the KRRiT, has fined the country’s largest private TV station, American-owned TVN, for a “lack of objectivity and journalistic integrity” in a documentary about purported neglect by Polish Pope John Paul II in dealing with child sex abuse in the Catholic church.

TVN has condemned the decision, calling it an attempt at censorship. A leading human rights group has also raised concern over the fine, which was issued by the head of KRRiT, Maciej Świrski, an appointee of the former ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has led a long-running campaign against TVN.

Decyzja Przewodniczącego KRRiT w sprawie audycji „Bielmo. Franciszkańska 3” nadanej na antenie TVN 24.

▶️ https://t.co/dd0zPehJn9

▶️ https://t.co/uK2hcdcDnD pic.twitter.com/IToF5QKVJR

— KRRiT (@KRRiT__) March 6, 2024

The decision concerns a documentary released by TVN in March 2023. It claimed that the future Pope John Paul II, while still archbishop of Kraków, knew of sexual abuse by priests subordinate to him but allowed them to continue working in the church and may even have tried to prevent the authorities from learning of their crimes.

The documentary focused on how the pope dealt with three particular cases of priests responsible for abuse, presenting new evidence, including accounts directly from victims and witnesses, files from the communist-era security services, and an interview filmed undercover with a former employee of the Kraków diocese.

The broadcast sparked a debate and some calls to reevaluate the legacy of John Paul II, who is a national hero in Poland due to both his religious leadership and his role in opposing communism.

But it was also criticised by many conservative figures, including from the PiS government that was then in power. The party’s chairman, Jarosław Kaczyński, described the report as a “scandalous, defamatory, coordinated media witchhunt aiming to destroy the authority of the greatest Pole in our history”.

Tens of thousands, including government ministers, attended marches in Poland today honouring Pope John Paul II.

This year’s anniversary of his death took on particular significance due to recent reports claiming he was negligent in dealing with sex abuse https://t.co/IeRBnAHJgU

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) April 2, 2023

In a statement yesterday, the KRRiT revealed that it had received 6,058 complaints about TVN’s programme – the highest number in the regulator’s history – signed by almost 40,000 Polish citizens.

Following an investigation, it found that TVN’s material “failed to meet the standards of journalistic ethics”. It was “biased, prepared with a selective selection of sources, and an ahistorical interpretation of facts and events” with “the entire narrative adjusted to a previously stated thesis”.

The KRRiT criticised the programme-makers for relying on files produced by the communist-era security services – who were involved in repression of the church – and claimed that they had failed to consult other sources.

The regulator also claimed that the documentary “was contrary to the law and social good, harming religious feelings, in this particular case of Catholics, and disinforming public opinion”. Offending religious feelings is a crime in Poland carrying a potential prison sentence of up to two years.

A man has been detained on suspicion of vandalising a statue of former Pope John Paul II.

He is charged with “offending religious feelings” and “insulting a monument”, crimes in Poland that could result in a prison sentence of up to two years https://t.co/qggoOy8L1W

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) April 7, 2023

“Media freedom and freedom of public expression are not limitless. Journalists need to act within a specific legal framework,” the KRRiT added, citing provisions on the journalistic duty to provide reliable information and to respect the religious feelings of the audience.

As a result of the failings identified by the KRRiT’s investigation, its president, Świrski, issued TVN with a fine of 550,000 zloty (€128,000).

In response to the decision, TVN released a statement saying it “has no basis in fact, undermines media freedom and is an attempt to impose censorship…and intimidate our editorial offices”.

“The mission of journalists is to inform and reveal facts – including those that show the difficult truth,” wrote the broadcaster, announcing that it will appeal Świrski’s decision in court.

Przedstawiamy oświadczenie redakcji TVN24 w związku z decyzją przewodniczącego Krajowej Rady Radiofonii i Telewizjihttps://t.co/H8Mctqy1WP

— Czarno na białym TVN24 (@tvn24CnB) March 6, 2024

The KRRiT’s conclusions were also questioned by Konrad Siemaszko, a lawyer from the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR), who argued that it is not the regulator’s role to assess the veracity of programming.

“Such a high penalty can be interpreted as a form of suppressing historical debate, which should take place among historians and journalists without fear of a penalty of half a million zloty,” Siemaszko told TOK FM.

He also pointed to the fact that Świrski, an outspoken conservative figure who was made head of the KRRiT by the then PiS majority in parliament in 2022, has issued a series of large fines against liberal media outlets, including Radio Zet and TOK FM, as well as TVN.

TVN has regularly been criticised by PiS, whose deputy leader called it a “pro-Russian Soviet creation”. In 2021, the party sought to pass a law that would have forced the sale of the station by its owner, Warner Bros. Discovery, but the legislation was vetoed by President Andrzej Duda.

Poland’s broadcasting regulator is investigating US-owned station TVN over an interview in which a leading Holocaust scholar said Poles did little to help Jews during the war.

The prime minister condemned the remarks as part of an „anti-Polish narrative” https://t.co/opw2Bnzpq5

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) April 22, 2023

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Main image credit: Agnieszka Sadowska/ Agencja Wyborcza.pl

Agata Pyka is an assistant editor at Notes from Poland. She is a journalist and a political communication student at the University of Amsterdam. She specialises in Polish and European politics as well as investigative journalism and has previously written for Euractiv and The European Correspondent.

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