“Small” Media Act – Big Deal For Media Freedom in Poland

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The reform of the public media in Poland reached its full cruising speed. The respective law was voted in the Parliament shortly after Christmas and the new chairman of the public TV – an active politician of the governing coalition – was appointed last week. Before moving to critical analysis of these developments, let me put them in a context: there is no single democratic country where public media are entirely free from political influence. Since public radio and TV are co-financed from tax payers’ money, it is clearly acceptable that the government supervises their operational efficiency. However, influencing the content and – more importantly – the type of political narrative presented by the journalists – is not.

Separating efficient management from exercising political influence is not always straightforward. But Poland’s governing party (Law and Justice, PiS) undoubtedly crossed the line. At least two aspects make it apparent – the reforms’ focus on staff replacements and the political intentions explicitly disclosed by MPs and government’s officials.

The so-called “small” media act was discussed and voted in the Parliament overnight and without any serious public consultations. Perhaps there was indeed no reason to bother experts or stakeholders, because the law had only one simple objective: to change the management of the public media. Based on the new law, heads of Polish Radio and TV, boards of directors and supervisory councils had been fired and their successors hand-picked by the treasury minister. No open competitions, no clear selection criteria, no involvement of the Media Supervisory Committee – instead: a purely political decision.

In a similar modus, the recently appointed management can be dismissed without any justification. Not surprisingly, the new head of the Polish TV is one of the most radical politicians of the pro-government block. Jacek Kurski is probably a public figure who can be given the highest credit for stimulating the growth of a huge reef between the two political blocks and the two parts of Polish society supporting them. In the presidential elections of 2005, Jacek Kurski accused Donald Tusk that his grandfather had been a member of Wehrmacht during World War 2. Kurski’s allegations were far from historical truth, but still served perfectly as a political nuclear weapon. Tusk lost the elections and Kurski has never abadonded his rhetoric. Now he is in charge of ensuring independence and political balance in the public media.

When voting over the “small” media act, Law and Justice announced that it is only the first “preparatory” step of a more comprehensive public media reform to be implemented in the coming months. The details are not yet known, but the underlying concept is a transformation of the public TV, radio and news agency into “national media”. What’s behind? Not only the requirement to respect “Christian hierarchy of values and cultivate national traditions”, but first and foremost, personal changes going as far as the operational level. All staff contracts will be scrapped and journalists subject to evaluation prior to re-employment in the national media.

Another aspect that makes the media war in Poland unprecedented are the explicitly political intentions of the governing party. Law and Justice’s politicians do not even pretend to hide the aim of controlling the political message spread by the media. Please let me simply quote here Krystyna Pawłowicz, MP (any further comments are rather unnecessary): “The government, as it enjoys the voters’ mandate, must be able to administer public media. It needs to have influence, and more precisely, a direct influence”.

The purely staff-related nature of the reforms and the statements by Law and Justice’s politicians leave no doubts that the media fight has one objective: undermining the public media’s ability to scrutinise the actions of the government. The attempt to turn the Polish media into a propaganda tool of the government has already been noticed by the European Commission, the Council of Europe and international journalist associations. Nevertheless, all this will probably not impress the government in the slightest. Yet, last Saturday thousands of people in numerous Polish cities once again went to the streets to express their outrage as regards the restrictions of media freedom. More importantly, Polish citizens evaluate the public media every day. And the main tool to do so is simply a remote control. That leaves some hope that no further red lines shall be crossed.

Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz