Right aims, wrong methods: public media takeover shows dangers for new Polish government

By Stanley Bill

Poland’s new coalition government has wasted no time getting on with perhaps the central item on its agenda – a reckoning with its Law and Justice (PiS) predecessors for the excesses of their democratic backsliding.

But the coalition’s first moves have already caused controversy, bringing into focus the difficulty of repairing captured public institutions without resorting to the same dubious methods that degraded them.

Yesterday saw extraordinary scenes, as the new culture minister took control of Poland’s main public media organisations by unilaterally replacing their boards. The public television news channel was then taken off air, while PiS politicians and journalists occupied the public television building in protest at what they described as a “coup.”

Poland’s new government has dismissed the heads of public media outlets and this morning state TV’s news channel went off air.

That prompted a sit-in protest by the former ruling party at TVP headquarters in defence of „media independence and pluralism” https://t.co/YSTbQc6Q65

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 20, 2023

Public media under the PiS government had become a symbol of the party’s illiberal approach to institutions. Using legislation and a newly created state body, PiS evaded the previously established procedures to take control of their boards immediately after coming to power in 2015, then purging and filling public television and radio stations with its loyalists.

Since then, public television in particular has emitted a constant stream of the most radical propaganda in a quasi-authoritarian style, relentlessly attacking PiS’s opponents and praising the party, in defiance of statutory requirements of pluralism and balance.

The aim of repairing these media and restoring basic journalistic standards through personnel change is clearly justified. But the coalition government’s methods for achieving this aim have already raised eyebrows, and not just among PiS and its supporters.

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

The new government has effectively taken advantage of the institutional chaos created by PiS to get around the board appointment procedures, both the new ones introduced by PiS and the earlier ones.

Instead, it has applied an interpretation of the commercial companies code to give the new culture minister the right to appoint the boards himself as the representative of the sole shareholder of public broadcasters – the state treasury.

Lawyers will debate the specific merits and defects of this approach, but in essence it looks very much like a continuation of PiS’s modus operandi of executive decisionism at the blurry borders of legality.

While PiS created new procedures and bodies by legislation to accelerate its takeover of public media, the coalition has achieved a similar result by selective interpretation of the law. There is no direct symmetry here, but both groups believed their aims justified radical means.

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 pic.twitter.com/eie3FRXuIA

— Daniel Tilles (@danieltilles1) December 20, 2023

This flawed approach to the legitimate aim of replacing degraded public media boards will do little to repair the damage PiS has done to Poland’s democratic processes and political culture.

On the contrary, it risks embedding this damage as a new normal in an endless cycle, while also giving PiS and its supporters a new rallying myth of democracy overthrown.

But what alternatives did the new government have? After all, it could not allow the continued consumption of massive taxpayer funds by party propagandists in brazen contravention of the mission of public media.

The coalition chose not to try any legislative solutions of its own, perhaps assuming the PiS-allied President Andrzej Duda would veto them. And the two other bodies that could be used to appoint media boards are both stacked with PiS appointees. Following these procedures might have meant waiting years to implement change.

This apparent lack of any elegant solutions left a difficult choice between crude effectiveness and toothless probity. The government has chosen the former, appeasing their hardline supporters and – conveniently – removing a source of constant attacks.

To be clear, the current laments of PiS and its public media propagandists – who claim to be defending “media freedom and plurality” – are hypocrisy on a staggering scale.

PiS purged public media and turned television news into party propaganda of unprecedented crassness and brutality, far beyond any previous bias. PiS created the mess and first reached for the methods it now decries.

Yet the difficult questions remain, no doubt to be repeated in various contexts as the new government seeks to reverse eight years of PiS rule.

Are radical means justified to undo the damage of democratic backsliding? Even if it were possible to create independent public institutions in this way, could resorting to PiS’s own decisionist methods ever be a constructive solution when those methods were precisely a key part of its erosion of democratic norms?

But is there any other way to restore captured institutions? Is the basic choice now between using dubious methods and leaving PiS’s deformed institutions in place for years to come? If so, which of these options is the lesser evil for Poland’s democracy? Or is there a more difficult, middle path, which the coalition has chosen not to attempt in public media?

Whatever the answers, yesterday’s events seemed to spin out of control for the government. The spectacle of the occupied building, the temporary closure of a television channel, and a poorly produced statement run in place of the evening news may well have disconcerted even some of its supporters.

The heads of the Supreme Court and Constitutional Tribunal, both appointed under the former PiS government, have criticised proposed judicial reforms by the new administration, which they claim threaten the rule of law and violate the constitution https://t.co/K30KVcLGNO

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 18, 2023

Much now depends on how the new public media will develop from here. They can only improve from the gutter level of the PiS era, but the result may be a softer bias in favour of the new government, which also enjoys more sympathy among major private media than PiS. This would indeed threaten media pluralism, as PiS has warned, pointing to the imbalanced situation before 2015.

Ultimately, Poland’s new government has taken a hard course because part of its electorate wants displays of “justice” and renewal without delay. They may succeed in improving public media, but at the cost of resorting to a version of PiS’s own ad hoc, decisionist means.

The same dilemma will apply to a whole range of institutions – perhaps above all, to the courts. Chaotic scenes of conflict like those seen yesterday may repel moderates domestically and attract scrutiny internationally.

Donald Tusk’s coalition faces the challenge of repairing the institutional wreckage of the PiS era without becoming more like PiS themselves.

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: Roman Bosiacki / Agencja Wyborcza.pl

Stanley Bill is the founder and editor-at-large of Notes from Poland. He is also Professor of Polish Studies and Director of the Polish Studies Programme at the University of Cambridge. He has spent more than ten years living in Poland, mostly based in Kraków and Bielsko-Biała.

He is the Chair of the Board of the Notes from Poland Foundation.

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