REVIEW #13: Authoritarian Change, Public Broadcasters, and “Fake News” in Poland

Authoritarian regimes and dictatorships of any kind have always typically striven to control the flow of information in the countries they governed. All media outlets that would come under control of such political systems were bound to cease as reliable sources of information.

At the same time, some authoritarian regimes would declare themselves genuinely free democracies and would hope to transmit this kind of image to at least part of the world. The fact-checking activities of free media, usually from the democracies abroad, would present a major challenge to this image-building strategy, as lies and propaganda of their state media would get exposed time and again.

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In some cases, this threat would constitute an incentive to limit the frequency of false information broadcasting to only the most urgent or inevitable situations. But in today’s reality, where people are permanently confronted with a tremendous amount of online news sources (many of which are of rather low quality), with identity media outlets, which dress up ideological formation as news, and, of course, with blunt so-called “fake news” spreaders, the general trust in media credibility has been profoundly damaged1.

It has now become fairly easy for anyone who broadcasts political information to insist that it is the others who spread lies.

In a world filled with false or inaccurate news, authoritarian regimes can set up public broadcasting news outlets and publish disinformation almost without limits. As public TV and radio stations in democratic countries still enjoy a somewhat better reputation than other outlets2, them being taken over by a government which is gearing towards introducing a change of the political system – away from liberal democracy – creates a potential for spreading disinformation.

These manipulations can prove to be resistant to exposure for quite a number of years. In Poland, since the electoral success of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, the public broadcasters, especially the public Polish Television (TVP), are a case in point.

Polish Public Television after the 2015 Political Change

Not only during election campaigns has it become clear to most observers and many institutions that both TVP’s flagship daily news programme “Wiadomosci” and its 24/7 news channel TVP Info have turned into a completely one-sided, government and PiS-supporting, opposition-bashing, political campaign operator.

The news reports of “Wiadomosci” have the quality of election campaign spots, which can be roughly divided in two categories: on the one hand, positive reports on the government and PiS candidates illustrating their various successes and never mentioning any mistakes of theirs; and on the other hand, strongly negative reports on the opposition who they claim governed disastrously before 2015 and since then only attempt to maliciously spoil the Polish days in the sun.