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ERR in Poland: New Donald Tusk government addressing public broadcasting controversies

Donald Tusk became Polish prime minister in December, almost a decade after he last held the post.
Donald Tusk became Polish prime minister in December, almost a decade after he last held the post. Source: SCANPIX/REUTERS/Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Reaching balance within public broadcasting is one of several challenges facing Poland's new Donald Tusk-led coalition government, ETV foreign affairs show "Välissilm" reported Monday.

At the same time, in reversing the status quo after eight years of the Law and Justice party being in office, Tusk's administration is already starting to be accused in some quarters of going down a similar route itself – ie. of hijacking public broadcasting for its own propaganda purposes.

In the October 2023 election, Donald Tusk's catch-all Civic Coalition finished as the second-largest bloc at the Sejm, the Polish legislature, behind the Law and Justice (PiS) party of incumbent Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

However, despite President Andrzej Duda nominating Morawiecki for another term as prime minister, PiS did not have a majority, whereas the Civic Coalition, along with the Third Way and New Left, together had a 54 percent majority, allowing them to take office instead.

Tusk preempted the Sejm convening for its next session, and after Morawiecki's proposed cabinet lost a vote of confidence in the Sejm on December 11, parliament subsequently nominated Tusk as its candidate for prime minister.

This and subsequent steps taken by the new government has proven controversial; the latter have, some allege, hijacked the public media via their decision to liquidate the public broadcaster as part of a restructuring plan, while supporters of the new coalition would point to the PiS having done the same thing during its long years in office – to the extent the public broadcaster, Telewizja Polska (TVP), had become little more than a mouthpiece for PiS propaganda.

Wprost newspaper journalist Marcin Makowski, who has also worked as a TVP presenter, earlier said the fallout has "shaped up to be much more difficult, violent and hostile than we anticipated."

TVP house has police cordon

These days, "Välissilm" reported, the TVP's main building in Warsaw resembles more a fortress than anything else, encircled by barricades, and watched over by plenty of police.

Will the national broadcaster simply become the mouthpiece of the new government as it had been for the old?

The previous Morawiecki-led administration had left a governing apparatus chock full of its own people, often holding lengthy sinecures. It has also installed mechanisms, and created alternatives to legal structures, making change for the new prime minister, Donald Tusk, formerly prime minister 2007-2014 to and President of the European Council 2014-2019, a painful process.

Headquarters of Polish public broadcaster TVP, in Warsaw. Source: Dmitri Fedotkin/ERR

Nevertheless, the Tusk administration has begun to forcefully cut through this Gordian knot, "Välissilm" reported.

University of Warsaw political scientist Professor Anna Wojciuk told "Välissilm's" Epp Ehand that: "The new government is trying to take control over the state and then negotiate, rather than negotiate in order to take control, because I my view their assessment is that Law and Justice (PiS) would not give it up, so if you negotiate from a position of weakness, then you will lose."

This position has led to the incarceration of two former ministers convicted of abuse of power.

PiS supporters have been out protesting in the streets, while the majority of society expects the government to act responsibly.

Record turnout at October election

Abusing power during troubled times can be all too easy, "Välissilm" reported. The new government has nonetheless been trying to ensure legitimacy by explaining its steps and promising to respect court rulings.

The stakes remain high for all sides, due in no small part to the higher-than usual voter turnout back in October (over 74 percent, compared with less than 62 percent at the previous general election in 2019 – ed.).

In fact, the turnout was a record for Poland since the end of communist rule.

SGH Warsaw School of Economics political science departmental head Malgorzata Moleda-Zdziech told "Välisilm" that: This government has a very big debt towards public opinion, because our social mobilization was very big, and the turnout was historical and very very high, and now people are interested in politics. They would like to see the result, and they would like to see the changes, and they would like to control the government."

Krzysztof Bobinski: The hate speech at TVP is largely gone, but the set-up is a bit amateurish

Meanwhile, Krzysztof Bobinski, head of foreign relations at the Society of Journalists, an independent body, said that change had been evident in the public broadcasting media at least, where the tone had changed for the better.

Bobinski said: "The hate speech in the old public media has gone. It's very calm. It tries to portray all points of view, including the point of view of the new opposition.

On the other hand, "it's slightly amateurish," Bobinski went on.

Not only that, but there have also been signs that the very nepotism the broadcaster had been charged with while PiS were in office may continue under the new coalition, albeit with different faces.

Krzysztof Bobinski. Source: Dmitri Fedotkin/ERR

"The people who are in the new public media are to be honest with you I think friends with the man who is managing all of this, who is the culture minister (Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz – ed.)," Bobinski said.

So is there still a clear and present danger of the TVP becoming a propaganda channel for the new government in a sharply divided society?

Bobinski thinks there is.

"This is the danger, that once they start appointing their people, their friends, to be in charge of the public media, they will do that for the next 4 or 5 years."

At the same time, he said, the legislature is addressing the matter.

Ball in the Sejm's court

"The parliament is soon to start working on a new media law, and we are demanding that there be very very strict rules banning politicians from being involved in that," Bobinski said.

In any case, a political battle is in full swing at the Sejm, too. Paweł Jabłoński, PiS MP, told "Välissilm" that: "Well they are unfortunately heading towards a police state, rather than rule of law as they have been claiming."

Rather than the rule of law, the new government is putting in place rule by lawyers, he went on.

"They are establishing a rule of lawyers, lawyers that are sympathetic to the political party, and ruling without an appropriate legal basis, using a police force, using armed security to take over the media, imprisoning MPs without valdi legal grounds for that, so unfortunately the situation is quite grim."

Coalition MP Agnieszka Pomaska (Civic Platform) told "Välissilm" the main tool for change remains the law, regardless of how difficult this may be.

She said: The law is the first step and our basic tool to change the situation. The point is that the rules that were set up by the previous government were against the constitution, and against the law. Yes, it is not easy to make this reform, to make the situation as it should be.

TVP news anchor almost literally pulled off air

At one of the post-election events, Marcin Wolski (see above), who previously held leading positions at the TVP and hosted a satirical program, made a now famous comment that his colleagues had already making worse propaganda for the ruling party than had been the case under communism in the 1970s and early '80s.

Current TVP news manager Grzegorz Sajor nonetheless pledged that the broadcaster will not go on to simply mediate the government's point of view, but will be characterized by objectivity and reliability.

Wolski is not optimistic about these prospects, however, telling "Välissilm" that this had been the case under PiS rule too.

"While a small amount of a certain substance can be medicine, an overdose can kill. The content the national broadcaster was airing was already undermining the cause it was supposed to contribute to. I refuse to hide the fact that I support right-wing views, and freedom. But I could not watch what my colleagues were doing on a daily basis," he said adding that it damaged the very goals it was aimed at, and insulted the viewer's intelligence," Wolski went on.

But just how did the national broadcaster get involved in dispensing party propaganda of any hue?

Wolski hinted that it ended up being the sole supporter of the-then government at a time when the rest of the media, and much of the international media too, was on the offensive.

"The national broadcaster was operating in a situation where the rest of the media was attacking the government," Wolski told "Välissilm."

Another factor which will make change challenging is the fact that sitting President Andrzej Duda is an ally of the previous administration. The new government may thus find it difficult to implement many initiatives, for another year-and-a-half at least (the next presidential election is expected to take place in 2025 – ed.).

At least one unifying issue remains unchanged, however: Support for and to Ukraine, a country which borders Poland.

On immediately entering office, the new Tusk-led government pulled the plug on the TVP's programming in dramatic style.

On December 20, TVP news anchor Adrian Borecki was mid-broadcast when he was pulled off air, after saying to viewers: "I invite you to watch perhaps our last news program. I'll start with the latest news, as I was told, a few minutes ago the heads of television, radio and news agencies were fired."

The original "Välissilm" segment (in Estonian, Polish and English) is here.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Merili Nael

Source: 'Välissilm,' reporter Epp Ehand.

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