Controversy has erupted around Poland’s public media, with members of the conservative former ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party – including its leader Jarosław Kaczyński – holding a sit-in protest at state broadcaster TVP amid efforts by the new government to exert its control.
Amid a series of developments since yesterday, the government has moved to dismiss the management of TVP and Polskie Radio, another public broadcaster, as well as of the Polish Press Agency (PAP). Today, TVP’s news channel, TVP Info, suddenly went off air.
Poland’s new government fired the supervisory boards and management of all public media in a move to end PiS’ control over them.
Broadcasters TVP 1 and TVP Info stopped working: just music and the TVP 1 logo are being broadcast right now.
— Wojciech Kość (@WojciechKosc) December 20, 2023
During the eight years of rule by PiS, which ended this month, public media were turned into a mouthpiece for the ruling party. The new ruling coalition, led by Donald Tusk, has pledged to “depoliticise” the outlets.
On Tuesday evening, the government’s majority Sejm, the lower house of parliament, passed a resolution demanding the restoration of legal order at public broadcasters, which have a statutory duty to be politically neutral.
“During the previous two terms of the Sejm, public radio and TV and the PAP…became exclusively party media outlets carrying out propaganda tasks in favour of the government and the broader ruling camp,” read the justification for the resolution.
A prominent figure from state TV admits they produced „worse propaganda” than under communism to support the ruling party’s election campaign.
But he thinks this „Stalinist logic” backfired and contributed to the negative outcome of the election for PiS https://t.co/8CsLIeVgNz
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) October 18, 2023
It also noted that in 2016 the constitutional court had found PiS’s move to place a new National Media Council in charge of overseeing the managmeent of public media to have been unconstitutional.
“In this state of affairs…there is an urgent need to start the process of restoring the constitutional order in the area of citizens’ access to reliable information and the functioning of the public media, and in the area of independence, objectivity and pluralism,” wrote the resolution.
However, many PiS MPs missed the vote on the resolution because they were instead at TVP headquarters protesting in support of “media independence”.
Jesteśmy też na Placu Powstańców. Bronimy dziennikarzy i pluralizmu w mediach! ✌️ pic.twitter.com/SZlVaKmdva
— Marcin Horała (@mhorala) December 19, 2023
“There is no democracy without media pluralism, without strong anti-government media,” said Kaczyński during the sit-in. PiS has long argued that, because Poland’s private media are generally liberal, the conservative slant of public media provides necessary balance.
“We must defend these media, precisely because we are defending democracy, defending citizens’ right to access information,” he added.
Former PiS Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also turned up at TVP headquarters, where he took photos with staff including star anchor Michał Adamczyk and a prominent editor at TVP Info, Samuel Pereira.
— tvp.info 🇵🇱 (@tvp_info) December 19, 2023
On Wednesday, the culture minister, Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, announced that he had on Tuesday dismissed the current presidents of TVP, Polskie Radio and PAP, as well as their supervisory boards.
His ministry argued that an interim order issued last week by the Constitutional Tribunal (TK) – a body widely seen as being under the influence of PiS – preventing the new government from making major changes to public broadcasters “is legally ineffective”.
One Wednesday morning, TVP Info went off air. Its news website and online streaming service now redirect users to the main TV channel.
— Patryk Michalski (@patrykmichalski) December 20, 2023
President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally, expressed concerns about the moves being undertaken by the new ruling majority. He addressed a letter to the speaker of the Sejm, Szymon Hołownia, calling on the governing coalition to respect the law.
“[While] not questioning the right of the parliamentary majority to make changes to the legal system, it must be stressed that a political objective cannot be an excuse for violating or circumventing constitutional and statutory regulations,” wrote Duda.
“The announced changes concerning public broadcasting must respect democratic standards and be carried out in accordance with the rules set out in the constitution,” the president added, without, however, indicating which parts of the resolution he believes are not constitutional.
Podtrzymuję swoje publiczne deklaracje, dotyczące otwartości na dialog i współpracę w najważniejszych dla Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej sprawach, w tym zapewnieniu rzetelnego i sprawnego działania konstytucyjnych organów. Proponowane zmiany muszą się mieścić w granicach wyznaczonych… pic.twitter.com/NELobeC2t4
— Kancelaria Prezydenta (@prezydentpl) December 19, 2023
On Wednesday, Maciej Świrski, who was appointed under PiS as head of the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT), a state regulator, also condemned the moves made since yesterday by the new governemnt.
“Dismissing the management and supervisory boards of public media is a gross violation of the law,” wrote Świrski. “Turning off the television signal and websites of TVP Info is an act of lawlessness and recalls the worst times of martial law [under communism].”
During PiS’s time in power, public media were regularly used to promote the government’s agenda and to attack its political opponents. Regular surveys by both Polish state research agency CBOS and researchers at the University of Oxford found that public trust in TVP collapsed under PiS.
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Main image credit: Kuba Atys / Agencja Wyborcza.pl
Alicja Ptak is senior editor at Notes from Poland and a multimedia journalist. She previously worked for Reuters.