After eight years of propaganda, can Polish journalists regain public trust?

May 13, 2024
In December, right-wingers protested changes to management at Poland's public broadcaster, at one point even occupying one of its buildings. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via AP)

In late December, Poland’s public broadcaster descended into chaos. Two months earlier, Poles had elected former prime minister Donald Tusk for a third time, voting out a parliamentary slate of right-wing populists who, since 2015, had controlled the levers of government, including the state broadcaster, known as TVP. Under their watch, TVP’s news programs repeated government talking points and demonized the opposition, turning the sedate channel into something akin to a taxpayer-funded Fox News. TVP’s credibility plummeted: a 2021 study by the Reuters Institute at Oxford found that just over a third of Poles trusted it, the lowest of more than a dozen media outlets measured.

Six days after taking office, Tusk turned to public television as Exhibit A of his strategy to sweep out populists with an “iron broom.” On December 19, the new majority passed a parliamentary resolution demanding that “impartiality” be restored at public broadcasters. The head of TVP was fired, as were the heads of the state-owned wire and radio services. 

The next day, the new government ordered TVP Info, the outlet’s twenty-four-hour news channel, off the air; it remained off for about a week. A few hours later, prominent right-wing figures, including Jarosław Kaczyński, the most powerful right-wing politician in Poland, entered the TVP building in southern Warsaw and occupied it; more joined, with some forcing their way past police and security guards. Kaczyński denounced the parliament’s actions as a “coup d’état,” and vowed to defend what he called “media pluralism.”

The wily Kaczyński, a seventy-four-year-old lifelong bachelor who lives alone with his cats, had stayed at TVP headquarters all night. But the conservative sit-in continued a few miles away, at TVP’s central Warsaw bureau. Law and Justice MPs joined for a Christmas Eve dinner. Michał Adamczyk, an anchor during the previous populist government, spent more than three weeks camped out in the offices. “I spent one month in a tent in Antarctica,” Adamczyk told me. “I spent one month in Iraq in a military tent.” By comparison, sleeping inside the ornate downtown building—which was going unused by the new management—was “no problem.”

While right-wing figures gathered in the southern Warsaw building on December 20, Paweł Płuska, the newly appointed head of TVP’s evening news program, 19:30, arrived there with a small team for his first day of work. Płuska and his colleagues soon found themselves on the front lines not only of an intense protest, but of something bigger: a campaign to restore the reputation of the public broadcaster and its main evening newscast—and, they hoped, to turn down the temperature of the country’s deep polarization.

Inside the building on that first night, a presenter named Marek Czyż recorded a brief statement to air. While protesters chased Czyż and Płuska with their smartphone cameras through the halls, another senior staffer quietly delivered the statement to the technical staff. In it, Czyż said, “Instead of propaganda soup, we want to offer you clean water.”

19:30 used to be called simply Wiadomości (“The News”). It began broadcasting in November 1989, a few months after the Communists were defeated in Poland’s first free election in over forty years. In 1992, Poland’s parliament, attempting to turn the page on TVP’s legacy as a communist propaganda organ, passed a law requiring that the network provide broadcasts that were “pluralistic, impartial, well-balanced, independent, and innovative, as well as of high quality and integrity.”

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Despite that law, TVP often favored whichever party was in power. During Tusk’s second term, from 2011 to 2014, TVP gave his party disproportionate airtime, according to the channel’s own statistics. Still, Janek Lasocki, who has closely documented the saga at the public broadcaster, wrote on the English-language website Notes from Poland that TVP sometimes showed real independence: for instance, in 1999, it broadcast footage of then-president Aleksander Kwaśniewski drunk at a war cemetery. 

TVP has a captive audience that is disproportionately older and lives outside large cities. Unlike its private competitors, TVP’s twenty-four-hour news channel is free to watch. About a third of Poles have access only to the free channel. (Cable packages cost around $13 to $20 per month.) TVP is funded by advertising and licensing fees, but less than 8 percent of households actually pay the fee—enforcement is rare—so TVP must rely on direct government subsidies. TVP’s status as the free broadcaster has led to big ratings: in 2022, it received a 28 percent viewing share among Polish broadcasters, meaning that of all the Poles watching television, nearly a third were watching TVP. 

In 2015, Law and Justice swept the country’s presidential and parliamentary elections, with the help of older people and those living outside big cities. The party received a simple majority—no coalition partners needed—enabling it to remake state institutions in its image. The new government pushed through a law that allowed it to fire TVP’s management. Shortly after, the government appointed a new chief, former Law and Justice lawmaker Jacek Kurski, who made no apologies about steering the network’s tone in a radically different direction. “I don’t deny that some of the viewers, especially those with liberal views, have stopped watching us,” he said in 2016. “At the same time, many conservative viewers from right-wing areas of Poland have returned to TVP.”   

Indeed, as Poland grew more polarized, TVP grew more politicized. News programs frequently ran chyrons accusing Tusk, who had become president of the European Commission, of being a German stooge. The widow of Gdańsk mayor Paweł Adamowicz, who was assassinated in 2019, blamed hate speech from TVP for contributing to her husband’s death.

The 2020 presidential election illustrated how partisan the network had become. A Polish media monitor found that 97 percent of the broadcasts about Andrzej Duda, the incumbent Law and Justice president, were positive, while 87 percent of those about his opponent, Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, were negative. Broadcasts depicted Trzaskowski as being associated with a “powerful foreign lobby” linked to billionaire George Soros and responsible for bringing Muslim migrants to Europe. Other broadcasts suggested that Trzaskowski wanted to give Polish property to Jews for restitution; the American Jewish Committee filed complaints to Poland’s media ethics council about TVP broadcasts. Trzaskowski lost the race narrowly.

Adamczyk, the former anchor who’d spent nights sleeping at TVP after the takeover, was one of the public faces of the channel during this time. While he was spending nights in the central Warsaw bureau, the National Media Council, which was created—and remains controlled—by the old government, appointed him as TVP’s new head. Despite the title, he has no real authority over TVP; he has no work email or key card. In February, I met Adamczyk, dressed in casual clothes, at a quiet restaurant in suburban Warsaw, far from TVP’s offices. 

During a long lunch, he was feisty in his defense of the old TVP. He had two arguments in support of his broadcasts: that TVP had always been politicized by whichever party was in power; and that partisan broadcasts were necessary to counterbalance the popular private channel TVN. (In a broadcast, TVP called TVN a “fake-news factory.”) “The media was dominated by the left,” Adamczyk told me, even during the years of Law and Justice rule. He added, “Take a look at TVN. Take a look at TVP. It’s like Fox News and CNN.” TVN has been sharply critical of Law and Justice—but, as a private channel, it is not subject to the law governing broadcaster objectivity. 

Adamczyk entirely rejected the new government’s methods for taking control of TVP. “You may have disliked the media before, but you should respect the law about changing the authorities,” he said. Adamczyk said his days were spent shuttling between law firms and banks, trying to reverse the government’s move to put TVP and state broadcasters into liquidation, which it argued it needs to do to reform the channels. He also thought that the new programming was pro-government: “It’s only a copy of TVN, and it’s a bad copy of TVN.”

Another former TVP official has said the channel’s right-wing tilt was a mistake. At a conservative post-election gathering in Warsaw, Marcin Wolski, a former director of TVP’s culture channel and host of a right-wing satirical political show, said, “I say this as an accomplice: we created propaganda at a worse level than in the 1970s.” He argued that this content was “a waste of time and money” because viewers would have voted for Law and Justice anyway. Within TVP, however, “the Stalinist logic won: whoever is not with us is against us.” When I met Wolski at his house a few months later, he said the old management had taken him off the air because of his remarks. He had imagined he would be thanked for his criticisms—instead, he said, his independent streak had scared his bosses. Wolski had moved his show to YouTube, where he said he had “a lot of followers,” but less money than at TVP.

When I arrived at TVP in February, it looked like it was under siege. Barricades surrounded its imposing headquarters in southern Warsaw. Police guards kept watch outside. IDs were checked at several points and individual key cards were required for entry and exit for each department. 

Inside, however, it had the rhythm of a normal newsroom. Reporters were making calls, producers were editing footage, editors were meeting to discuss the day’s stories. There was even a random celebrity guest in the building: Luna, Poland’s entrant for the upcoming Eurovision, in May. 

During the campaign, Tusk had promised TVP would be back to “public television” within twenty-four hours. However, the hard work was just beginning. “We are changing the language from hatred and exclusion,” Płuska, the head of the evening news show, told me when I met him in his office. “This is a public broadcaster, not party propaganda.”

Maciej Czajkowski is Płuska’s deputy, and has experience both at the old TVP and the BBC, which he holds as something of a model public broadcaster. Czajkowski was one of the first journalists to be fired in 2016 after Law and Justice took control of the network; he moved to London to join the BBC, and returned to Poland after the election. Now he is dreaming big: he told me that he hopes Michelle Obama or Volodymyr Zelensky might sit for an interview with 19:30. He showed me a behind-the-scenes Instagram video, complete with stirring music, chronicling 19:30’s December 21 debut news broadcast. “I am in charge of the main news bulletin in this country, and I am openly gay,” he said. “That is the proof that I am no different…my values are universal values.”

Czajkowski said “changing the system” now was even more challenging than when the country’s Communist dictatorship was voted out. “It’s more difficult than in 1989, because [then] everyone wanted to leave the Communist times behind. Now people are confused.” Sitting in the TVP cafeteria, Czajkowski said he is trying to create a news program that will teach people “critical thinking” and appeal to all. “The situation for eight years has been created by politicians,” he added. “They turned public media into propaganda-tube, which was full of emotions for them. We are delivering a voice.” 

Poland’s fight over public broadcasting offers a window into the question of whether institutions commandeered by populists can ever go back to normal—particularly once the public sphere has been infected by populist language. Kaczyński, the powerful right-wing politician, called opposition protesters “Poles of the worst sort,” and Law and Justice described its political program as “good change.” The late Polish philologist Michał Głowiński compared these phrases to the “newspeak” of Communist times. In his first term, Donald Trump attempted to take control of America’s international broadcasting operations by putting Steve Bannon ally Michael Pack in charge; should Trump win a second term in 2024, his allies have detailed plans to fill US institutions with loyalists to carry out his agenda. Poland offers a lesson in how tall the task of deprogramming from populism is. 

It’s particularly hard on 19:30’s journalists, all of whom are new. Blanka Dżugaj, a reporter, has faced an onslaught of abuse online, including social media posts calling her “swine” and a party functionary. Nevertheless, she told me, “it’s a huge chance for any journalist in Poland now to make a whole new Polish television after eight years of destruction.”

In its first statement to viewers, the revamped 19:30 promised a “photograph of the world.” The broadcast showed straightforward news from Brussels, the capital of the European Union, which the previous management had cast as an enemy. When I was there, the show included segments on the Polish parliament, farmers’ protests along the border with Ukraine, and Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of longtime Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. It was informative, if appropriately boring.

Still, much of TVP’s audience seems to have tuned out. Nielsen data shows that for the first four weeks of the rebooted 19:30, it was getting barely half the audience share of the old program. Meanwhile, a right-wing channel called TV Republika has seen its audience nearly double. Michał Rachoń, a confrontational conservative former TVP Info host, returned to Republika after TVP’s management changed. We spoke as he was being driven around Warsaw to look for new studios to replace the channel’s cramped offices. “We want to be number one in the Polish market,” he told me. “This will happen.”

While Tusk won and took control of TVP, his control is not absolute. Duda remains in office through 2025, and he has a veto over legislation passed by parliament. Tusk’s coalition does not have a large enough majority to override him. At the end of December, after Duda threatened to veto Tusk’s overhaul of TVP, Tusk put the channel, along with Poland’s state-owned radio and wire services, into liquidation.

This move triggered controversy not only among former government officials, but with some of the same rights groups that had been critical of Law and Justice. Katarzyna Batko-Tołuć, board director of Watchdog Poland, a government oversight group, told me that while public media was “propaganda” under Law and Justice, “there is no explanation why the whole [takeover] process is not transparent.” Some legal experts were more favorable: former Polish ombudsman Ewa Łętowska wrote that the decision to liquidate the channel was “proportional and constitutional.” (The whole process remains caught up in litigation. Most recently, a court in Warsaw affirmed the legality of Tusk’s move.)

As with before Law and Justice took power, the new TVP has been accused of favoring the new government. In February, TVP released a promo praising the channel’s reboot that featured—exclusively—politicians from the new government. Demagog, an independent fact-checking group, found that 19:30 criticized President Duda more than private channels and sometimes omitted information critical of the Tusk government. For about two months after the reboot, Law and Justice politicians refused to appear on TVP, but on February 26, TVP Info interviewed a Law and Justice senator. Czajkowski told me that during the run-up to local elections in April, Law and Justice politicians were making their way back—at least on TVP’s regional news programs. “I will be criticized and seen as part of the system,” Czajkowski said. “I can only say: I am not.” He added, “This is not black and white. [Law and Justice] created these circumstances.”

Many TVP employees hold out hope that the government will pass a new media law giving journalists the freedom to do their jobs without worrying who is in power. That remains unlikely under Poland’s divided government. While they wait, the journalists are universally enthusiastic about delivering high-quality, impartial news programming. Marcin Kowalski is one of them. The news presenter was fired in 2016 under Law and Justice, but came back to TVP under new management after struggling to find a consistent TV job. “We took public media from the bad guy, and we gave it to the people,” he told me. “But we have to prove that we gave it to the people. We have to be open to both sides.”

Luke Johnson is a Berlin-based journalist who reports frequently from Eastern Europe. He is the author of the newsletter Public Sphere.