Polish government puts public media into liquidation amid dispute with president

In the latest escalation of the bitter struggle for control over Poland’s public media, the new government has announced that it is putting broadcasters TVP and Polskie Radio as well as the Polish Press Agency (PAP) into liquidation.

It says it has made the unprecedented decision because President Andrzej Duda – an ally of the former ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which had turned state media outlets into propaganda mouthpieces – vetoed the government’s plans to provide funding next year for public media.

Komunikat Ministra Kultury i Dziedzictwa Narodowego

W związku z decyzją Prezydenta Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej o wstrzymaniu finansowania mediów publicznych podjąłem decyzję o postawieniu w stan likwidacji spółek Telewizja Polska S.A., Polskie Radio S.A. oraz Polskiej Agencji… pic.twitter.com/gXXQMxNMrS

— Ministerstwo Kultury i Dziedzictwa Narodowego (@kultura_gov_pl) December 27, 2023

“Due to the president’s decision to suspend financing of public media, I have decided to put the companies into liquidation,” announced culture minister Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz in a statement this evening.

“In the current situation, such action will ensure the continued operation of these companies, the carrying out of necessary restructuring and the prevention of layoffs of employees due to lack of financing,” he added. “The state of liquidation may be withdrawn at any time by the owner [the state treasury, represented by Sienkiewicz].”

On Saturday, Duda announced that he would veto legislation put forward by the government and approved by its majority in parliament that would have provided up to 3 billion zloty in funds for public media in the 2024 budget (as well as funding for other government policies, such as pay rises for teachers).

He said he was doing so due to “the flagrant violation of the constitution and the principles of a democratic state of law” by the government during its takeover of TVP, Polskie Radio and PAP a few days earlier.

The president has announced he will veto the government’s plans for the 2024 budget.

He made his decision due to the „flagrant violation of the constitution and principles of a democratic state of law” by the government during its takeover of public media https://t.co/PDlcMrqsvk

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 23, 2023

Today, Duda proposed his own alternative bill that would have maintained other government spending in the budget – such as the public sector pay rises – but did not include the funds for public media.

However, this morning, the speaker of parliament, Szymon Hołownia, who is one of the leaders of the new ruling coalition, said that he would not convene an early sitting of the house to discuss the president’s proposal, as Duda had requested.

This afternoon, before Sienkiewicz’s decision was published, Prime Minister Donald Tusk announced that the cabinet had decided that the 3 billion zloty previously earmarked for public media would instead be spent on cancer treatment and mental healthcare for children.

Tusk added that Duda’s veto had forced the culture minister to make certain decisions, which would be done “calmly and rationally”.

❗️ „Przygotowaliśmy nowy projekt rządowej ustawy, gdzie już wprost te 3 miliardy z obligacji, będzie do dyspozycji NFZ z przeznaczeniem tych pieniędzy na onkologię dziecięcą” – premier @donaldtusk 🇵🇱 pic.twitter.com/YBrfiWUbfc

— Kancelaria Premiera (@PremierRP) December 27, 2023

However, Sienkiewicz’s decision was condemned by figures linked to PiS and to the former management of public media. Samuel Pereira, a senior editor at TVP under PiS, said that the “usurpers are trying to bypass the National Court Register” – the body responsible for validating Sinkiewicz’s previous decision.

“Those responsible for the attack on the public media will eventually be held accountable for their actions,” he added.

Shortly afterwards, President Duda’s chief of staff, Marcin Mastalerek, published a statement declaring the decision to put public media into liquidation as “an admission of defeat by the government”.

“Minister Sienkiewicz behaves like a typical aggressor: first he attacked brutally, and now – in the face of effective resistance – he threatens to blow everything up,” added Mastalerek. “This is proof of the complete powerlessness of the authorities, who have not found any legal way to change the leadership of these companies.”

Decyzja ministra Sienkiewicza o postawieniu w stan likwidacji TVP, Polskiego Radia i PAP to przyznanie się do porażki przez większość rządową. Blitzkrieg się nie udał.

Minister Sienkiewicz zachowuje się jak typowy agresor. Najpierw brutalnie napadł, a teraz – wobec skutecznego…

— Marcin Mastalerek (@MMastalerek) December 27, 2023

The latest move by the government is likely to further complicate an already complex and contested legal situation.

On his last day in office, the former PiS culture minister, Piotr Gliński, changed the statute of TVP to make it more difficult for Tusk’s incoming government to put them into liquidation. However, his request was rejected by a court due to an error in the application.

Robert Kwiatkowski, a member of the National Media Council (RMN) associated with the new ruling coalition, told news website Interia earlier this month that under Polish commercial law liquidators have “very limited powers”.

“It is not their responsibility to reform the media or make personnel changes,” said Kwiatkowski. Their tasks involve fulfilling a firm’s financial and other obligations, liquidating its assets and winding down its business.

It is possible that the new government could seek to establish new publicly owned companies to replace the current TVP, Polskie Radio and PAP. But the head of the RMN, Krzysztof Czabański, who is associated with PiS, warned that would be a “legal quagmire” and “detrimental to the interests of the public media”.

The new government’s takeover of public media prompted protests from the former ruling PiS party. But it also raised doubts among legal experts.

We asked three such experts – @K_Izdebski, @MichaRomanows14 and Dominika Bychawska-Siniarska – for their views https://t.co/u9QAMFX2Zk

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 26, 2023

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Main image credit: Maciek Jazwiecki / Agencja Wyborcza.pl

Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign PolicyPOLITICO EuropeEUobserver and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.

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