Poland’s media problem just exploded as government makes public-TV channels go dark


The official goal was to “depoliticize” the public airwaves. Instead, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s new government ignited a political bonfire.

Poland’s government sent baton-wielding police last week into the headquarters of TVP — the main state broadcaster.

Officials cut the feeds for two public-television channels, shut down their websites, froze their YouTube accounts and ended their live streams.

Polish televisions went blank.

The heavy-handed tactics transformed a mundane rotation of political appointees into a highly politicized drama with supercharged accusations of illegality.

It is a bad day for freedom when a government uses state power to shut down a press in any country.

This was a very bad day for Poland. The biggest victim will likely be the diversity of opinion in Polish media.

The problem for Poland is state ownership of the economy.

Successive Polish governments have expanded their control of the gross domestic product.

The state owns or controls nearly half of Poland’s 20-largest companies and employs more than 50% of all workers in this category.

As a result, political elections in Poland have seismic economic consequences.

To the victor go the spoils.

The ousting of a ruling party at the Polish ballot box reshuffles the winners and losers across the economy.

This includes the public airwaves, which reach between 30% and 40% of all Polish households.

The former Law and Justice government expanded the state’s control over the public-broadcast sector in 2016.

It passed legislation to put all public broadcasters like TVP’s network of nationwide television stations under the treasury ministry.

It also granted officials the authority to hire and fire journalists and station directors.

While in opposition, Tusk’s party denounced this move. Now in power, it has inherited those same sweeping authorities and expanded them — dramatically so.

The changing of the guard at TVP should have been boring.

A similar process occurs at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, America’s public broadcaster, following every presidential transition.

Instead of using the established legal process to appoint new managers and quietly adjust the editorial tone of state-owned broadcasters as it saw fit, the Tusk government opted for a very public scorched-earth policy.

Without warning, it pulled the plug on TVP’s main news channel (TVP Info) and its English-language channel that covered international news and the war in Ukraine (TVP World).

As broadcasters went dark mid-sentence, armed police ejected some TVP staff from their offices.

Opposition leaders cried foul and staged a ruckus sit-in. The political accusations flew.

“These are completely illegal actions,” said Polish President Andrzej Duda, denouncing the government’s move. “This is anarchy.”

Former Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki went on the warpath.

“What we see today is violating lots of Polish laws including the Constitution,” he declared. “The rule of law as such has been violated brutally here in Poland.”

The nonpartisan staff at TVP were the most shocked.

“It’s barbaric. It’s done with no explanation. It’s done without any due process,” said one TVP employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Another who also spoke off the record said, “It’s a bigger problem than just closing public media stations and changing directors. The government’s move implies that it can ignore laws voted on since 2016.”

Poland’s National Broadcasting Council chief Maciej Swirski sounded the alarm in public.

“Turning off the television signal and websites of TVP Info is an act of lawlessness and recalls the worst times of martial law,” he said. “Political objectives cannot constitute an excuse for violating or circumventing constitutional and statutory provisions.”

The tables have now turned on the Tusk government.

After denouncing the former government’s influence over the public airwaves, its heavy-handed shutdown of TVP has inflamed the opposition.

While the opposition still represents a plurality of voters, it has no meaningful broadcast alternatives.

There is no Polish analogue to Fox News — for now.

In the weeks ahead, Tusk’s main challenge will be to protect the political speech of his fiercest critics while not putting his thumbs on the scales of media outlets he now controls.

For the sake of democracy in Poland, let’s hope he resists the powerful temptation.

Peter Doran is a senior adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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