Polish explainer: what is the kerfuffle about the Polish public broadcaster about?

Warsaw. Photo by tm-md. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Media all over the world are writing about the stand-off in the headquarters of TVP, Polish public broadcaster. As some voices try to frame it as an assault on democracy and freedom of speech, I thought I might need to write a small explainer.

1. Background.

TVP and Polish Radio are an equivalent of the BBC: a public broadcaster that is supposed to provide unbiased reporting. Of course, it was never perfect, just as the BBC is not, but while it was usually leaned towards the current government, there was always pluralism. During the last rule of Donald Tusk, PiS accused TVP of bias, but at the same time they had their own people like Pośpieszalski or Ziemkiewicz hosting prime time political shows.

When PiS took over power, Poland was rated 18th in the global rankings for freedom of the press. If you want to know more, in 2016 I made a detailed report on the situation in the Polish media for an online journal Visegrad Revue (copy on my blog here)

2. Public media under PiS

PiS appointed Jacek Kurski as chairman of TVP. He is known as “Kaczyński’s bull terrier” and up to then, his most notable achievement was to attack Donald Tusk by bringing to public attention that Tusk’s grandfather served in Wehrmacht (he was a resident of Free City Danzig, and, as a Kashub -ethnic minority in Pomerania – after Hitler’s invasion, was automatically considered German and forcibly drafted in 1944, after which he deserted and joined Polish Armed Forces in the West).

Under Kurski, TVP underwent a drastic purge. Professional journalists were either sacked, bullied or left of their own accord, refusing to participate in the PiS propaganda machine. As a result, according to Reuters Insitute of Journalism from Oxford University, just four years later TVP was the least trusted source of information – worse than tabloids. Between 2015 and 2023, Poland dropped from 18th to 57th position in the press freedom ranking. This was, in large part, because of turning public broadcasters into party propagandists, but also due to other PiS’s actions like indirectly sponsoring pro-government private media outlets by redirecting advertising money from state controlled companies or purchase a controlling chunk of the local media by the state-controlled oil giant, Orlen.

After eight years of PiS rule, TVP became a synonym of fake news and propaganda. As if it wasn’t enough that the narrative was completely dominated by PiS – inviting mostly PiS politicians and almost exclusively pro-PiS pundits and reporting live on events such as Jarosław Kaczyński taking part in a holy mass celebrated in memory of his mother, it became known for outrageous and ridiculous stunts such as: 
– making up a fake fashion creator only so he could praise the style of the first lady (source);
– digitally removed the symbol of a charity event hated by PiS from a coat of an opposition politician (source) (for reasons we won’t go into here);
– using footage showing murdered Ukrainian victims of Russian barbarism as an illustration for material accusing the opposition of being pro-Russian (source);
– broadcasting homophobic “documentaries” slandering the LGBT community (TVP lost a case, the movie was banned and they had to pay damages to pro-LGBT organizations – source);
– creating fake news (like when a TVP reporter was throwing litter in the park just to film it and then accuse the opposition-controlled city council of being unable to keep the area clean – source);
– staging fake vox pops (like when spokeswoman for State Forests pretended to be a random tourist praising State Forests – source);
– subliminal messaging aimed at Donald Tusk (like endless repetition of words “for Germany” cut out of context from his speech in German (source); or changing colours of his face to red and framing the picture in such way that the image in the backdrops created the illusion that he has devil’s horns – source).

The list goes on. Similar things were going on in Polish radio, including an attempt to overturn the music charts when a song criticizing Kaczyński became too popular – I wrote a separate piece about that at the time (here).

The level of absurdity and surrealism of this propaganda was so off the scale that comparison with North Korean TV became common. And if you think this might be a bit too far, watch this bit of a flagship newsnight programme and ask yourself: is that impartial reportage about the final days of the electoral campaign of all candidates, or a tribute to Our Beloved Leader? Don’t worry, you don’t need to speak Polish, just scroll 20 seconds to where the actual material starts and you’ll see for yourself what I mean:

But of course, it’s not just silly things. TVP was accused of driving a campaign of hate against the former mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, who was later murdered by an unhinged man. TVP sued people who suggested that the murderer was raging with hate towards Adamowicz and his (opposition) political party because he was, according to his own words, watching nothing but TVP. They lost (source), so it is now legal to say that their campaign of hate contributed to Adamowicz’s death.

More recently, the public media, along with PiS propagandists, disclosed the fact that a son of one of the opposition MPs was a victim of a paedophile – just to attack his mother after she abandoned her son , needing to focus on purely her political career after she unearthed a corruption scandal in State Forest. The boy took his own life as a result of those attacks (I wrote about it at the time here).

It’s worth to mention that the number of viewers of TVP and listeners of Polskie Radio was in rapid decline, and many Poles decided to boycott it by refusing to pay their TV licences, so the broadcaster was operating at huge loss and had to be supported with direct funding from the government – almost £400m per year.

3. PiS made sure that their people are welded to the chairs at TVP and Polskie Radio.

When PiS was performing the takeover of the public broadcaster, they made sure that this could be maintained if they ever were to lose power. They reduced the number of the boards of directors in the Public media and reset the terms of service of the members of overseeing bodies, so they could replace them with their own people (source). They also established a new, parallel oversight institution, so the National Media Council emerged alongside the National Broadcasting Council. This new institutions is staffed fully by PiS politicians and is mandated to appoint directors of Polish Radio and TVP, despite the fact that such a setup is against the Polish Constitution – as ruled by Constitutional Tribunal.

Under these new circumstances, it’s virtually impossible for the new government to appoint a new head of the TVP or Polskie Radio. Why?

Because the National Media Council is fully-staffed by people from PiS and their term of service is six years, so they would be sitting there for another five years.
The new government could propose a bill abolishing NMC and returning to the previous arrangement. But such a bill would be most likely vetoed by President Andrzej Duda from PiS; (the President of Poland has strong veto powers) and Donald Tusk’s government does not have the 60 per cent majority required to overturn a presidential veto. This means that going the new bill route would take months and would lead to nothing, and all the while PiS-controlled public media would be attacking the government with raging pro-PiS propaganda.

4. A loophole and the clashes in TVP on 20 December

The new government decided to use a loophole. While TVP is a public broadcaster, it is also a business entity where 100 per cent of its stock is owned by the government. As such, under company law, the owners can change the company leadership. PiS noticed this loophole too late, and in desperation they ordered the Constitutional Tribunal to rule that such a move is illegal. This ruling, however is meaningless, and  not only because the Tribunal in the meantime was turned into Kaczynski’s puppet theatre and is, for the most part, no longer a respectable, legal court and the verdict was delivered by judges who used to be PiS MPs. It is meaningless also because it’s not within the Tribunal’s prerogatives to rule if this or that law can be used under certain circumstances – they can only pronounce on whether a bill is itself contradictory to the Polish constitution.

In desperation PiS MPs went to the TVP headquarters and, together with TVP employees, tried to prevent the new director and his team from taking over. After the signal had been switched off, they broadcasted on Facebook and in Pro-PiS niche TV station TV Republika. It did not do them much good, as attentive viewers started to ask questions like:
– if TVP is independent, how is that PiS MPs could get into the broadcasting control room (some reports on Twitter suggest they were issued with door codes granting them access across the whole building)?
– if TVP is independent, why is there a portrait of (most likely Lech) Kaczyński on the wall outside director’s office? Imagine the rage if someone found that the chairman of the BBC hung Boris Johnson’s portrait on his wall?

To top it all, Mateusz Morawiecki being outraged by the “hostile takeover” of the public media, calling for the new government to observe the rule of law and ensure freedom of speech, was a hypocrisy overload for everyone. Therefore, as at the time of writing those words it seems that the planned occupation was slowly dying out – the call to arms for the public to come and “defend freedom of speech” also flopped. At most, 150-200 PiS voters gathered outside the TVP Headquarters, which is nothing compared to the thousands who took to the streets all across Poland two years ago when PiS attempted to introduce the law that would make it possible to take control over private TV stations.

5. Summary.

It is true, that takeover of the public broadcaster was a bit dirty and required some creative use of the law. Both of the two options the new government had were bad (act this way, or allow TVP to remain in the hands of PiS for at least a year until a new president is elected).The option they took was the slightly better of the two – and it also responded to the will of the nation: according to a recent poll, 60 per cent of Poles wanted to see a change of leadership at TVP (and a large part of these would expect every single person currently working there to be sacked), while only 30 per cent wanted things to stay as they were… and that 30 per cent is a lower number than those who voted for PiS in the last election.

Of course, it would be much better if the power change could be done in a civilised way, but over the course of eight years PiS did so much damage to the rule of law and set so many traps that untangling it all will not be easy: if we want to bring back normality, sometimes the new government will just have to cut the Gordian knot. But we Poles need to watch our politicians closely to ensure that they won’t get used to using the law in this way and this won’t become the new normal.