Tuesday

19th Mar 2019

Poland postpones overhaul of public media

Poland’s deputy minister of culture Krzysztof Czabanski has postponed a so called “large media law” to control public broadcasters that was to enter into force on 1 July.

The minister told Polish press agency PAP that he still supported the idea of a complete overhaul of the current system, but that the far-reaching changes would require notifying the EU.

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  • Experts said current law is "fully politicised ... overwhelmingly to the benefit of the ruling party" (Photo: AK Rockefeller)

“Notifications usually take eight to 18 months,” he explained, ”and even longer in the case of significant changes”.

The ministry of culture wants to take more time to adjust the bill in line with EU law and Council of Europe standards.

In the meantime, a bridge law would already put in place a new media council to supervise public media.

The large media law consists of three legislative proposals that were tabled to the Polish parliament in April.

MPs held a first discussion on the draft bill, which planned to turn public broadcasters into so called “national media” which would be obliged to spread the views of the Polish parliament, government and president - all of which are currently led by the Law and Justice party (PiS). National media would also have to “respect Christian values and universal ethical principles”.

Public broadcasters - TV, radio, and PAP itself - currently act as companies ruled by commercial law. The minister suggested they would become public entities represented by their directors, who would also be the editors in chief.

They would be supervised by a new National Media Council. Current supervisory boards and programming councils would be dismissed and replaced.

Council of Europe

The Council of Europe, the European human rights watchdog, published an expert opinion of the proposed changes on Tuesday, calling for a number of changes to the draft law.

The authors said the law should ensure that members to the National Media Council are appointed in a transparent way and act independently of political influence.

The current provisions to ensure the independence of members contradict this aim, the experts noted, and added that the appointment procedure is non-transparent - lacking, for instance, a public hearing of the candidates. They also said it is based on vague criteria and "fully politicised ... overwhelmingly to the benefit of the ruling party".

The Polish minister suggested that the council would consist of six members appointed by parliament and the president. One of the members would be recommended by the largest opposition group in the parliament, according to the April draft.

The Council of Europe experts furthermore said a number of provisions in the new legislation may result in reduced pluralism and editorial independence.

”Content issued by public broadcasters must reflect the diversity of Polish society and should remain impartial and balanced,” the report said.

It recommended scrapping the proposal to collectively dismiss middle management employees, and said there should be a thorough impact assessment of the proposal to change the way national media are financed. The Polish government wanted to strengthen the independence of Polish media by financing them through a licence fee system tied to the electricity bill.

Following the Council's concerns, minister Czabanski suggested that two of five National Media Council members will be recommended by the opposition. He said the bridge law will enter into force on 1 July. The council itself is expected to start working on 1 September.

This law will replace the so-called "small media law" of December 2015, which expires on 30 June.

European Commissions

The European Commission has expressed concerns over the small media law.

Vice president Frans Timmermans wrote a letter to Warsaw in late December, asking foreign affairs and justice ministers Witold Waszczykowski and Zbigniew Ziobro to reconsider the law that dismissed the heads of public radio and TV and gave 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 said.

A commission spokeswoman told EUobserver last week that Poland's media changes remain a concern.

She said they were part of the Commission's opinion to the Polish government of 1 June, which was part of an ongoing probe on the rule of law in Poland.

"The media law adopted in December, as well as a number of other laws, have been challenged before the constitutional tribunal", the spokeswoman said. "It is essential that the tribunal is able to review the compliance of such legislative reforms with the Polish constitution, and that its judgments are respected."

PiS has blocked the functioning of the constitutional court and refuses to recognise its rulings.

Analysis

EU still shy of 'nuclear option' on values

The EU commission has moved forward with its rule-of-law probe on Poland, but critics say that a better framework is needed to uphold values.

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