Government takeover of public media violated constitution, says Polish president

The manner in which Poland’s new government seized control of public media this week was a “gross violation of the constitution”, according to President Andrzej Duda. He is an ally of the former ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has also condemned the situation.

The new administration argues that its actions are both legal and necessary to remove the unlawful control PiS has exerted over public media. However, some independent legal experts and commentators have also voiced concern over how this was achieved.

Yesterday’s chaotic takeover of public media highlights the difficulty Poland’s new government faces in repairing captured public institutions without resorting to the same dubious methods that degraded them in the first place, writes @StanleySBill

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 21, 2023

“The constitution was blatantly violated yesterday by [culture] minister [Bartłomiej] Sienkiewicz,” Duda said this morning in an interview with broadcaster Radio Zet. “It cannot be the case that the Sejm passes resolutions and these resolutions, in the opinion of the constitutional minister, replace or amend laws.”

The president was referring to Sienkiewicz’s decision on Tuesday to remove the presidents and supervisory boards of state broadcasters TVP and Polskie Radio as well as the Polish Press Agency (PAP). His decision followed a resolution calling for action by the government’s majority in parliament.

Duda told Radio Zet that those “unlawful actions” were a form of “anarchy [intended] to circumvent the law”. He argued that, if the new ruling coalition disagreed with the relevant law relating to public broadcasters, it should simply have sought to revoke or change it.

– Pominięto wczoraj przepisy obowiązującego prawa, co stanowi rażące naruszenie konstytucji i nie można się z tym zgodzić. To są całkowicie bezprawne działania [ministra kultury – red.]. To jest anarchia – @AndrzejDuda @PremierRP

— Radio ZET (@Radio_ZET) December 21, 2023

Sienkiewicz has argued, however, that he acted legitimately under commercial law, which allows shareholders – which, in the case of public media, is the state treasury – to dismiss executives. But Duda said that the broadcasting law takes precedence.

Yesterday, the president also sent a letter to Prime Minister Donald Tusk outlining his objections. Tusk replied that his government’s “actions are aimed at…restoring legal order and common decency in public life”.

The new administration, which came to power last week, has argued that public broadcasters, which have a legal obligation to be neutral, were in violation of the law by acting as mouthpieces for the former ruling PiS party.

They have also pointed out that the former PiS government and Duda himself have been found by Polish and European court rulings to have acted unlawfully in a number of areas, particularly regarding reform of the judiciary.

Panie Prezydencie, tak jak już Pana informowałem, dzisiejsze działania mają na celu – zgodnie z Pana intencją – przywrócenie ładu prawnego i zwykłej przyzwoitości w życiu publicznym. Może Pan liczyć w tej sprawie na naszą determinację i żelazną konsekwencję.

— Donald Tusk (@donaldtusk) December 20, 2023

The Sejm’s resolution, which was passed on Tuesday, noted that in 2016 the Constitutional Tribunal (TK) had found that the then PiS government’s reforms to the bodies with oversight over public media were unconstitutional.

However, Marcin Szwed, a legal scholar at the University of Warsaw and lawyer at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, disputed the government’s arguments for its actions.

He noted that the 2016 TK ruling “did not directly cover the law regulating how TVP entities are appointed and dismissed”. Moreover, Szwed says he “does not buy the argument that the state treasury can exercise ownership rights” in the way the government claims.

Meanwhile, further protests were organised by PiS and its supporters last night around TVP’s headquarters in Warsaw and in front of several regional TVP branches around Poland.

PiS argues that most large private media outlets are sympathetic towards the current ruling coalition, and that therefore the position take by public media in recent years helps to balance out the media landscape and ensure a plurality of views are heard.

The crowd that gathered at TVP headquarters yesterday chanted “Free media!”, “Rule of law!” and “Bullies, bullies!”, reports the Gazeta Wyborcza daily. Speaking to the crowd, former PiS Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told them they had to stand “together to defend Poland, Polish independence, and our democracy”.

“This is a historic moment. The Tusk government unlawfully deprived us of public media. Now there will be propaganda like that spewed by TVN and the German Onet,” he said, referring to the Poland’s main private TV station, the US-owned TVN, and a leader news website, Onet, owned by Ringier Axel Springer Media.

In more dramatic scenes from the HQ of Polish state TV, a group of PiS MPs physically forced their way into the building through police and security guards

— Daniel Tilles (@danieltilles1) December 20, 2023

Notes from Poland is run by a small editorial team and published by an independent, non-profit foundation that is funded through donations from our readers. We cannot do what we do without your support.

Alicja Ptak is senior editor at Notes from Poland and a multimedia journalist. She previously worked for Reuters.

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