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23rd Mar 2019

Poland escalates media law dispute with EU

  • "It seems someone provided you with misleading information that is biased," the Polish government wrote to commission vice-president Timmermans. (Photo: European Commission)

The Polish government sent a fiery reply to the European Commission's concerns about a new media law, just hours after the commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said he wanted "friendly and good relations with Poland".

In a letter addressed to commission vice-president Frans Timmermans Thursday (7 January) and leaked by the Financial Times Friday, undersecretatry of State Aleksander Stepkowski assured that "freedom of information and freedom of speech are fully appreciated and respected by the Polish government".

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On 30 December Timmermans asked Warsaw to reconsider a new law firing the heads of the public radio and television and giving the treasury minister power to choose their successors.

“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,” Timmermans wrote.

The Polish reply was sent only after the law was signed by president Andrej Duda Thursday and entered into force.

'Misleading information'

The fact that the letter is signed by Stepkowski and not by the ministers to whom Timmermans' letter was addressed, foreign affairs and justice ministers Witold Waszczykowski and Zbigniew Ziobro, or even by EU affairs minister Konrad Szymanski, can also be seen as a rebuke.

And although the letter gives answers on legal points raised by Timmermans, about respect of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and a 2010 EU directive on audiovisual services, it lambasts the commission over the mere idea of raising concerns.

"It seems someone provided you with misleading information that is biased against the Polish government," Stepkowski wrote.

"Media reports, even if believed to be pluralistic and free, often represent political interest and might appear an inappropriate base for official communication with member states," he added.

Warsaw's uncompromising reply will put the commission in a difficult situation.

It came just hours after the EU executive's president, Juncker, tried to avoid a showdown.

"We’re not bashing Poland,” he said Thursday. “Let’s not overdramatise. It’s an important issue."

Juncker also appeared to rule out the prospect of sanctions against Poland.

“I don’t think it’ll come to that,” he said, referring to the triggering of article 7 of the EU treaty, a rule of law monitoring process that can lead to suspension of the voting rights of a member state.

'Undesirable effect'

The college of commissioners is due to examine the situation in Poland on 13 January and it will have to decide on a political response to Warsaw's stand.

"The Polish government is always open to cooperation with the commission," Stepkowski wrote, before adding a veiled threat of escalation.

"Exposing the Polish government to interventions inspired by unjust, biased and politically engaged enunciations might have an undesirable effect, which is to be carefully avoided," he wrote.

Meanwhile the government nominated the new heads of the public TV and radio.

The radio will be under the direction of a journalist, Barbara Stanislawczyk, while the television is entrusted to another journalist, Jacek Kurski, who also happens to be a former MEP and MP for the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS).

In its letter to the commission, Stepkowski said the PiS government was "going to meet the expectations expressed by the biggest Polish organisation of media professionals", the Polish Journalists' Association (SDP).

Radical change

The government official also quoted the SDP as saying that "in recent years, public media have reached a state of pathology which is characterised, among other things, by political partisanship and the lack of pluralism". The SDP called for "a radical change".

The SDP is considered in Poland as close to the PiS and its president, Krzysztof Skowronski, was nominated director of public radio Program III in 2006, when current PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski was elected prime minister.

Unlike the SDP, four European journalists organisations said the new media law "is wholly unacceptable in a genuine democracy”.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the Association of European Journalists (AEJ), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) appealed to the Council of Europe, the human rights watchdog, on Wednesday (6 January).

On 7 January, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) also condemned the law.

"The new regime’s ambition is to turn Polish radio and TV into media instruments for the government, and not for its citizens,” EBU's director general Ingrid Deltenre said in a statement.

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Nordic countries Norway, Sweden and Finland still have the world's most free media, according to Reporters Without Borders, but the overall situation is declining.

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