Poland passes media law, ignores EU again
Polish MPs have passed a law on reform of public media despite growing EU and wider international criticism on democratic standards.
The lower chamber, on Wednesday (30 December) passed the bill by 232 votes against 152, with 34 abstentions.
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It must also be passed by the upper house and signed by the president, but both organs are controlled by the Law and Justice (PiS) party, which took power in October.
The bill terminates the tenure of the current management of public TV and radio broadcasters and gives PiS the right to directly appoint its own people. It also limits the number of independent supervisory board members.
MPs took the decision despite a letter from European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans, sent earlier on Wednesday, to the Polish foreign and justice ministers.
Timmermans asked them to justify how the law meets EU standards on free speech under article 2 of the EU treaty, article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and a 2010 EU directive on audiovisual services.
“Freedom and pluralism of the media are crucial for a pluralist society in a member state respectful of the common values on which the Union is founded,” he said.
The OSCE, a European rights watchdog, and European journalists’ associations, echoed the concerns.
Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE’s media freedom chief, said on Wednesday: “I fear the hastily introduced changes will endanger the basic conditions of independence, objectivity and impartiality of public service broadcasters … I urge the Polish government to withdraw the proposal.”
Five of Europe’s biggest journalist groups, one day earlier, said: “If the Polish parliament passes these measures … Poland will create a regressive regime which will be without precedent in any other EU country.”
The letter was signed by the European Federation of Journalists, the European Broadcasting Union, the Association of European Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
PiS rejected the criticism, however.
Witold Waszczykowski, the Polish foreign minister, said Wednesday evening on Timmermans’ appeal that “no such letter has reached my office.”
Konrad Szymanski, the EU affairs minister, said: “Poland conducts, and will conduct, responsible and constructive politics in the Union. This or other opinions on changes in Poland’s internal politics won’t prevent that.“
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the PiS party chief, said negative coverage of the developments is due to the fact “most of our [Polish] media are in the hands of German owners” and represents the “defence of a privileged system, in which media … exert too big an influence on public life.”
Speaking on Radio Maryja, a PiS-loyal broadcaster owned by a right-wing Roman Catholic group, he also attacked the head of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, Andrzej Rzeplinski.
The PiS government, earlier this week, passed a law extending political control over the tribunal, also ignoring a previous Timmermans letter.
Rzeplinski said on Wednesday the tribunal will, on 12 January - one day before an EU commission debate on Poland - issue an opinion on the legality of the reforms.
He said it will take its decision based on the pre-reform quorum of judges and pre-reform composition of the tribunal’s members.
Kaczynski said: “In my personal opinion, I would treat this as his [Rzeplinski’s] resignation from the … tribunal.”
The constitutional dispute has prompted critical remarks by the US.
Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said on Wednesday: “We are concerned - we care deeply about the character, the quality of Poland’s democracy.”
"A system of checks and balances and judicial independence are crucial elements of constitutional democracy and the rule of law.”
Two former Polish foreign ministers, Gregorz Schetyna, from the opposition Civic Platform party, and Adam Rotfeld, a left-wing politician turned academic, said PiS threatens to harm Poland’s international standing.
“Poland’s position, Poland’s brand, Poland’s success … are suddenly ending and the opinion of Poland, in a very concrete way, is changing in Europe,” Schetyna said in the Polish parliament on Wednesday.
Rotfeld told the TVN24 broadcaster: “If it comes to a rupture between Poland and the EU, it will be due to internal [Polish] reasons.”
He compared Poland under Kaczynski to Austria under its late, far-right leader Joerg Haider, when Vienna was stigmatised by the EU Council. “Values play a very important role in the EU - democracy and rule of law are key issues,” Rotfeld said.