The Media Today

The post-election battle for Poland’s state-run media

January 9, 2024
A protester and Law and Justice supporter waves a Polish flag during a sit-in demonstration at the headquarters of TVP state TV. (Photo by Attila Husejnow / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

A little over a year ago, Civic Platform, then the main opposition party in Poland, proposed a bill aimed at doing away with a rolling news channel produced by the country’s state-run broadcaster. “Money is being taken from Poles to finance propaganda,” a party representative said. “Poles deserve real public television, not like Russia Today, but like the BBC.” With the hard-right Law and Justice party leading the government, the proposal went nowhere, but ahead of an election in October, Civic Platform continued to beat the drum for reform of state-run media. “We will need exactly twenty-four hours for government television to turn into public television,” Donald Tusk, the party’s leader and a former prime minister, said at a rally.

In the days before the election, I reported that Law and Justice had indeed turned Poland’s state-run TV into a government mouthpiece, using it to attack not only political opponents but critical media, too—not least TVN, a Western-facing, US-owned network whose coverage Law and Justice saw as anathema to its nationalist-populist project. (Every day, state-run TV aired Jak oni kłamią, or How They Lie, a show specifically aimed at countering the supposed “manipulations” of TVN’s nightly newscast.) In the days after the election, observers led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that coverage in state-run media had skewed clearly in favor of Law and Justice. A former anchor conceded that state-run TV had produced worse propaganda than that seen under communist rule.

It didn’t work. Following the election, Law and Justice remained the largest party in the Sejm, the lower house of Poland’s parliament, but a coalition of parties headed by Tusk and Civic Platform won enough seats to take power. Liberal Western pundits quickly hailed the results as a rebuke to creeping authoritarianism in Europe and a clear win for the rule of law and moderate reform, including of state-run media. 

But reform would take Tusk and his allies considerably longer than twenty-four hours—indeed, state-run media quickly emerged as a defining and difficult early battleground for the new government as it embarked on a broader war against Law and Justice’s legacy. Law and Justice hasn’t given up on its old apparatus without a fight—and even some observers who abhor the party’s media legacy have questioned Tusk’s tactics in seeking to dismantle it. And, while the battle has been both politically and symbolically consequential, it is unfolding in a world in which state—and even genuinely public—broadcasters are at a crossroads. Poland is no exception.

In the days after the election, the outgoing government dug its heels in. According to the news site Notes from Poland, state-run TV established a hotline for viewers to pledge support for media “pluralism”; on his last day in office, the outgoing culture minister, also citing “pluralism,” moved to ram through legal changes that appeared aimed at complicating the incoming government’s reform agenda. In December, protesters gathered outside a state-run TV building and chanted “Down with communism!” among other slogans

Then came an escalation. The new government moved to dismiss the existing leaders of state-run media outlets and also took the rolling news channel produced by state-run TV off the air; on a different channel, the flagship evening newscast was canceled for a night, according to the Associated Press, with an anchor telling viewers that it would return the next day, without the propaganda. In response to the moves, politicians aligned with Law and Justice forced their way into the headquarters of state-run TV, where they staged a sit-in. Jarosław Kaczyński—a powerful leader of Law and Justice, who once spoke of state-run media as “supposedly ours” when the party was in government—reportedly stayed all night. “In any democracy,” he said in a statement, “there must be strong anti-government media.” 

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Meanwhile, Andrzej Duda—Poland’s president, who was elected independently of parliament and is an ally of Law and Justice—accused the new government of violating the constitution and promised to veto a spending bill containing funding for state-run media. In turn, Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, the new culture minister, moved to place the outlets into liquidation, a legal status allowing him to appoint officials to oversee operations. By the end of December, the legal wrangling had grown so fraught that three separate people were claiming to be the legitimate head of state-run TV.

Sienkiewicz argued that he was entitled to unilaterally replace the boards of the state-run outlets under commercial law; the Polish government, after all, is their legal owner. Law and Justice officials have disputed this authority, however—and numerous independent observers have also expressed concerns about the legality of the process. The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, a Polish nonprofit, said that the move raised “serious legal questions.” Writing in Notes from Poland, Stanley Bill, a Poland expert at Cambridge University in the UK, argued that it echoed Law and Justice’s “modus operandi of executive decisionism at the blurry borders of legality” (though he added: “there is no direct symmetry here”). The same outlet canvassed three legal experts, two of whom were also critical of the new government.

Experts are not unanimous on this point, however, not least because the legal framework regulating state-run media was distorted beyond the point of easy applicability by Law and Justice—the party created one regulator of questionable constitutionality and took effective control of another. (Tadeusz Kowalski, a consistently outvoted member of the latter regulator, told me last year that Law and Justice had weaponized the body to “suppress criticism and freedom of expression.”) The new government could have sought to legislate its way around these roadblocks, but doing so would have been slow and complicated—not least because Duda is slated to occupy the presidency through at least next year, and retains a power of veto.

The new government was thus in a bind: accept continuing propaganda from state-run outlets, or act to curb it quickly but in so doing risk creating the impression that it is just as lawless as Law and Justice. Law and Justice, at least, is pressing the issue: Kaczyński has called on supporters to rally in Warsaw later this week in supposed defense of democracy and press freedom. Adam Szynol, a professor in the Institute of Journalism and Social Communication at the University of Wrocław, however, told me that the quick approach was by far the lesser evil. The state-run nightly newscast, he says, is already much better than it was under Law and Justice. How They Lie has been canceled. 

Still, the legal debate continues. And, perhaps more important, putting state-run media on a sustainable independent footing—making it less like RT and more like the BBC—will be a fraught longer-term project, however the wrangling resolves. While its propagandistic bent under Law and Justice was exceptional, governments of all stripes have been accused of exploiting state-run media for favorable coverage—including during Tusk’s previous spell as prime minister. And, as Szynol suggested to me, in order for a truly independent public media to flourish, it will have to confront challenges that the BBC itself has struggled to overcome: questions not only of political bias, but of funding and, crucially, relevance, in an increasingly fractured media landscape.

When I spoke with Szynol, Kowalski, and others ahead of October’s election, they warned that another victory for Law and Justice could have dire consequences for the freedom not only of state-run but commercial media—during its time in power, the party waged a regulatory war on the US-owned TVN that went far beyond attacking its programming on air, a state oil company bought up a large regional newspaper chain, and the government was accused of rewarding friendly coverage with state advertising. Now Szynol, for one, is more optimistic. When I wrote in October, a broadcast regulator was refusing to renew the license for TVN’s main channel. After the election, the license was approved (even before Tusk’s government took office).

And even under Law and Justice, media pluralism—in the Westernized and corporate, not Law and Justice, sense of the term—managed to survive in Poland. Recent polling from the Reuters Institute found that state-run TV was the country’s least trusted major news outlet, with TVN more trusted and more widely watched, too. Upstart networks are also challenging state-run TV: indeed, since the election, TV Republika, a Law and Justice–friendly right-wing channel that has hired former state-TV figures, has seen a spike in viewership. And TV viewership in general is in decline. Szynol told me that younger generations, including many of his students, prefer to get their news online, and generally, he said, approach it with a more critical eye than the older voters who used to watch Law and Justice propaganda on state-run TV. 

Recently, young people have notably engaged with media produced by the state—just not of the kind that Tusk and Kaczyński are fighting over. As the new government took power recently, many young people watched the proceedings in parliament via livestream, a phenomenon that observers dubbed “Sejmflix.” As the Financial Times has reported, the showrunner, of sorts, was Szymon Hołownia, the Sejm speaker, who ran for president against Duda and, before that, hosted the Polish equivalent of America’s Got Talent on TVN. (His party is now part of Tusk’s coalition.) The voters who ejected Law and Justice, many of them young people, “want to see this change taking place, and in the Sejm it is happening before their eyes,” Hołownia told the Financial Times. “A citizen keeping an eye on the authorities is the basis of democracy.”

Other notable stories:

  • I noted in yesterday’s newsletter that Hamza al-Dahdouh and Mustafa Thuraya, two journalists in Gaza, were killed over the weekend in an Israeli air strike on a car in which they were traveling. Al Jazeera—where al-Dahdouh worked, and where his father, Wael al-Dahdouh, is the Gaza bureau chief—said that the journalists were “assassinated.” The Israel Defense Forces initially said that the journalists had been traveling with a “terrorist” who had been operating “an aircraft that posed a threat to IDF troops”—but NBC has since reported that, when it asked for proof of this claim, an IDF spokesperson said that the journalists had been flying a drone, calling this act “a problem” because “it looks like the terrorists.” The IDF said that it is investigating further. Wael al-Dahdouh led tributes for his son at a funeral ceremony, then pledged to continue his work.
  • Also over the weekend, Semafor reported on “serious divisions” at Axel Springer, the German parent company of Business Insider, over a story detailing allegations of academic plagiarism by Neri Oxman, the wife of Bill Ackman, a businessman who vocally campaigned to oust the president of Harvard, Claudine Gay, over her handling of campus anti-Semitism claims and, later, allegations of plagiarism against her. Leaders at Axel Springer reportedly feared that Business Insider’s story, while accurate, could be perceived as anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist since Oxman is from Israel, and put out a statement pledging to review Business Insider’s reporting process. Per CNN, the review has “alarmed” staffers and their union, which described the review as disappointing. 
  • In recent weeks, hundreds of writers who publish on Substack have put pressure on its leaders to address reporting showing the extent of pro-Nazi and otherwise extremist content on the platform. Substack initially defended the presence of the content, arguing that “censoring” it would only make the problem of extremism worse. Now Platformer—a Substack newsletter that recently said it would quit the platform if the content wasn’t removed—reports that Substack is removing some of the content after all. Substack said that it had not changed its policies but rather reconsidered how they should be implemented; Platformer suggested that it would stay on Substack for now. 
  • Notes from Poland reports that Gazeta Wyborcza, a leading newspaper in the country, has suspended Marcin Kącki, an investigative journalist, following an allegation of sexual abuse. Kącki recently published an article about his personal struggles, including with alcohol, in which he wrote that he had contacted a former student at a journalism school at which he taught to discuss past behavior that she said “crossed the line.” Various observers praised Kącki’s candor, but the former student has since said that Kącki has not been fully honest about his conduct, and that the article felt like him “spitting in my face.”
  • And in Chile, the supreme court sentenced four former soldiers to twenty years in prison for beating two teenagers, dousing them in gasoline, and then setting them on fire nearly forty years ago, during protests against the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. One of the victims, Carmen Gloria Quintana, survived, Le Monde reports; the other, Rodrigo Rojas de Negri, died. According to an account in the Washington Post, de Negri was a keen photographer who had returned to Chile from the US in part to document the protests.

ICYMI: Poland’s hard-right government wages war on a US-owned network

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.