Polish government criticised for refusal to reveal legal opinions on public media takeover

Two leading NGOs have criticised the government for refusing requests to release legal opinions it claims support its takeover of public media. The culture ministry says it did not save copies of the opinions so cannot provide them. But one of the NGOs has pledged to take the issue to court.

Soon after taking office in December, the government moved to take control of public media, which had been turned into a propaganda mouthpiece for the former ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

It insists that all its actions were legal. But many experts expressed doubts about the methods it used and a number of court decisions have subsequently gone against the government.

A court has refused to register the government’s move to put public radio into liquidation.

The decision was welcomed by the opposition, which says it shows the government acted unlawfully.

But the culture minister notes it can still be appealed https://t.co/Y0XxvcUhQm

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) January 22, 2024

On 19 December, Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, the culture minister in Poland’s government, which had taken office less than a week earlier, replaced the management boards of public media outlets TVP, Polskie Radio and the Polish Press Agency (PAP).

In doing so, he bypassed the state bodies tasked with overseeing public media. Sienkiewicz argued he was able to do so on the basis of a constitutional court ruling from 2016 and by using commercial law to exercise the state treasury’s rights as the sole shareholder in public media.

On 27 December, Sienkiewicz then again used commercial law to put TVP, Polskie Radio and PAP into a state of liquidation.

Poland’s government has put public broadcasters TVP and Polskie Radio as well as the Polish Press Agency (PAP) into liquidation.

It says it was forced into the unprecedented decision due to the president’s veto of funding for public media https://t.co/UvwfC4tfvb

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 27, 2023

That same day, in response to criticism of the government’s actions, Prime Minister Donald Tusk declared that “we have opinions from the most eminent lawyers who have no doubts that Minister Sienkiewicz’s actions are consistent with the law and the public interest”.

Sienkiewicz himself, as well as justice minister Adam Bodnar, also claimed that the government had legal opinions supporting its actions.

In response, Watchdog Polska, an NGO, sent a request to the prime minister’s office requesting copies of those opinions. It was told to instead send the request to the culture ministry, which it did, as did another NGO, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFPC).

However, the ministry failed to provide the opinions to either organisation. It told HFPC Watchdog Polska that it could not do so because the opinions “were not recorded by the ministry on a storage medium”. It sent HFPC a file on a completely different issue.

Krótka historia wniosków o opinie ws. przejęcia TVP. @donaldtusk mówi: Mamy opinie, wszystko zgodne z prawem w TVP.
Pytamy o opinie – @PremierRP: Nie mamy takich informacji, nie zlecaliśmy. Zapytajcie @kultura_gov_pl
Pytamy @BartSienkiewicz: Opinie nie zostały utrwalone. https://t.co/T3dpyn7vjN pic.twitter.com/I3Z8pSYPSj

— Watchdog Polska (@SiecObywatelska) February 2, 2024

The ministry’s response was criticised by HFPC, which said it would now take the issue to court.

“The public has the right to know the expert opinions cited by the government,” wrote the foundation. “This is guaranteed by the constitutional principle of transparency of the activities of public authorities.”

“Transparency by the authorities is even more important when their actions are so controversial,” added HFPC, which is one of the various expert bodies that expressed concern about the legality of the government’s takeover of public media. HFPC was also often critical of the former PiS government.

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

In response, Sienkiewicz yesterday published a post on X with a link to a page on TVP’s website containing two legal opinions supporting his actions. “For those who don’t know where to look but would really like to find,” wrote the minister.

However, the webpage he linked to was published on Friday afternoon, a day after HFPC’s statement. One of the two opinions it contained was issued on 5 January, which is over a week after Tusk’s claim that the government had opinions supporting its actions.

The other opinion on TVP’s website is dated 21 December, before Tusk made his claim. However, it relates to Sienkiewicz’s actions taken on 19 December, so was obtained after he had made them rather than before.

Dla tych, którzy nie wiedzą gdzie szukać a bardzo by pragnęli znaleźć: https://t.co/0JL4bIk9pj…

— Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz (@BartSienkiewicz) February 2, 2024

Last month, a court refused to register Sienkiewicz’s initial actions to change the management of TVP. It rejected the minister’s use of commercial law and reference to a constitutional tribunal ruling to justify his actions.

Subsequently, a court also refused to register the liquidation of TVP and Polskie Radio, but it did register the liquidation of PAP.

The government has continued to insist that its actions were legal and Sienkiewicz has noted that the courts’ negative registration decisions so far are not final and will be appealed.

A court official has registered the government’s decision to put the state press agency into liquidation.

Last week, two other officials from the same court refused to register similar moves to put state broadcasters TVP and Polskie Radio into liquidation https://t.co/L5je7dICGY

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) January 29, 2024

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.

Main image credit: Dawid Zuchowicz / 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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