Tuesday

27th Feb 2024

Media law reform poses major test for Tusk as PiS fights back

  • A protest has been organised by the opposition Law and Justice Party (PiS) for next Thursday 11 January
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The current clash in Poland between the newly elected centrist government and the opposition Law and Justice Party (PiS) over the future of public service media marks a key test for prime minister Donald Tusk in his bid to restore the country's rule of law after eight years of populist rule.

The PiS opposition is fiercely resisting the sacking of its loyalist supporters from crucial positions in Polish Radio and TV from which they supported their government since 2016 despite national media laws which demand the public broadcaster's coverage be impartial and pluralistic.

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Small but fervent groups of PiS voters outside public broadcasters' premises in Warsaw and the provinces have been demonstrating daily against the changes brought in last December. These mainly elderly men are happy to tell passers-by that they are there to defend free speech because if they fail, then, public opinion will be at the mercy of the "the German message which Poland's mendacious commercial media are propagating".

PiS' veteran leader Jarosław Kaczyński has urged supporters to attend a mass protest rally outside parliament next Thursday (11 January) to defend "Poland's democracy, Poland's media, freedom of speech and Poland's future as a sovereign country".

The turnout on that day will show how responsive PiS supporters are to this message which mimics the former opposition's lines and how willing they are to demonstrate on the streets after PiS' defeat in October's national elections.

Back then, 7.5 million Poles voted for PiS while over 11 million voted for the Tusk-led coalition. The next test of voter support will be on 7 April when nationwide local government elections will be held, with the European Parliament elections following in June.

The past eight years have seen PiS-controlled public media play an important role in consolidating the party's electorate and the loss of this influence is likely to weaken the party's chances of being able to recover quickly from its general election defeat.

Meanwhile, Tusk faces the task of reestablishing a framework for public media that ensures that all political parties enjoy fair coverage and eliminating the polarising content which pervaded Polish TV and Radio under the PiS regime.

But PiS insured itself against changes in the media by establishing a National Media Council (RMN) packed with its supporters soon after it came to power. The RMN has the sole right to fire and hire the heads of radio and TV and its six-year term runs to 2028.

Meanwhile, the KRRiT, the media regulator, is also dominated by PiS loyalists. Their term in office also ends in 2028. And even though the parliament could in theory vote to change the laws which govern these two institutions, Andrzej Duda, the president who is a PiS supporter, could veto any such changes. Duda's term runs until autumn 2025.

Faced with these legal barriers Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, the Polish culture minister and a Tusk confidant, has chosen to use his ministerial powers as the 100 percent owner of shares in Polish TV and Radio and put both institutions into liquidation.

Sienkiewicz has argued that since president Duda has vetoed a government subsidy worth 3bn zlotys (€750m) for this year, the future of the two broadcasters is no longer secure.

The liquidation has also opened the way to the legal appointment of receivers who can manage the two broadcasters in the interim and make management and editorial changes in both.

The PiS opposition has lost no time in criticising these changes as illegal but the media landscape has already changed markedly in the days since Christmas.

The main Polish TV evening newscast has become more moderate in tone than in the past and the station reports that around 30 percent of its airtime is devoted to covering Tusk's Civic Coalition party and the same share goes to PiS.

TVP Info, a 24-hour news channel and previously an intrepid purveyor of PiS messaging, has lost most of its audience to the privately owned, PiS-controlled Republika TV which has seen its audience shoot up to half a million compared to the 10,000 viewers they had before the elections.

Polish Radio has markedly changed its tone after the removal of editors who kept journalists on the PiS message. For example, the content of TVP 24, once a rabidly pro-PiS channel, is now calm and even-handed.

"Before the journalists were told what to broadcast or knew the limits to which they could go in their reporting. Now their minders have disappeared they are just getting on with their jobs," one insider said.

The Tusk government is due to start on a new media law aiming to bolster journalistic standards and obligations in impartial and pluralistic broadcasting.

But even if president Duda can be persuaded not to veto the law those drafter the new framework will have their work cut out to fashion the new laws to ensure that there will be no backsliding on political control in the media.

Author bio

Krzysztof Bobinski is a board member of the Society of Journalists, in Warsaw, an independent NGO. He was the Financial Times correspondent in Warsaw from 1976 to 2000. He worked at the Polish Institute of Foreign Affairs (PISM) and was co-chair of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum.

Opinion

Tusk's difficult in-tray on Poland's judicial independence

What is obvious is that PiS put in place a set of interlocking safeguards for itself which, even after their political defeat in Poland, will render it very difficult for the new government to restore the rule of law.

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