WARSAW — The changes to Poland’s media landscape came to international attention at the weekend when unprecedented critical remarks by U.S. President Barack Obama about the state of its democracy were edited out of state-owned TV news broadcasts.
Viewers of independent television stations on Friday evening heard Obama, who was here for a NATO summit, say: “I expressed to President [Andrzej] Duda our concerns over certain actions and the impasse around Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal.” Poles who turned into the public broadcaster’s main evening news program only heard Obama’s comments praising Poland.
The episode highlighted the tightening grip of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party on state-run television, known as TVP, since it came to power last year. The goal of PiS’s new media strategy isn’t to expand audience, which if anything is falling steeply. It’s political, and seems to be working. The party’s poll numbers are soaring above rivals in opinion polls.
The larger fear among political opponents is that the government will next look to bring private broadcasters and publishers to heel, and is already eyeing foreign-owned media in Poland.
The changes at TVP came quickly. Journalists out of step with the new authorities were pushed out. Newscasts are now unapologetically pro-government. On Saturday, TVP responded to criticism of its news agenda by condemning those who had pointed out Poland’s constitutional problems during the NATO summit, with commentators calling it “foul” and “shocking.” Poland has been embroiled for months in a crisis over which rules the country’s top constitutional court should follow.
The new-look state television is bleeding viewers, but those who’ve tuned out aren’t the people PiS is trying to influence. Its main evening news program has shed 750,000 viewers since the beginning of the year, falling to 2.7 million people. Overall, TVP saw a 19.8 percent fall in viewers since Jacek Kurski took over as TVP boss in January, putting it behind two private rivals.
“I don’t deny that some of the viewers, especially those with liberal views, have stopped watching us,” Kurski, a former MEP and PiS politician, said in a recent interview. “At the same time, many conservative viewers from right-wing areas of Poland have returned to TVP.”
Those conservative viewers are likely to be traditional PiS voters. Its core electorate is poorer, older people living outside the country’s large cities. “The government’s control of public television is effective,” said Aleksander Smolar, head of the Stefan Batory Foundation think tank and a critic of PiS. “It hardens the convictions of their core electorate.”
A new survey by the CBOS organization found Law and Justice at 39 percent support, with the opposition Civic Platform party at 15 percent and the new Modern party at 14 percent. That’s a better result than PiS gained in October’s national election.
A hands-on approach
What PiS is doing is not unusual. Even after the end of communist rule in 1989, democratic governments of both the Left and Right sought to influence radio and television. But the scale of PiS’s overhaul is deeper than anything that has come before.
The new TVP has a high profile supporter in Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS and Poland’s most powerful politician. “Television has changed for the better and that was done by Jacek Kurski,” Kaczyński said in a recent interview.
In the same interview, Kaczyński spoke at length about the bitter experience of his party’s 2005-2007 government, whose downfall he blamed on insufficient control of the media. “We had no media protection, and that applies to the public media which were supposedly ours. We were attacked from there no less than from private television, which was very unfavorable,” he said, adding, “The average Pole assesses the situation not on the basis of what is, but on the basis of what he sees on television.”
The government is pushing a deeper overhaul of public radio and television, although international criticism from the EU and the Council of Europe prompted it to delay the legislation, probably until next year.
Under a draft bill, national media are supposed to “preserve national traditions, patriotic and human values,” to “counteract misrepresentations of Polish history,” as well as portray “family values” and “respect the Christian value system.” The law would also force most public media employees to reapply for their own jobs.
The media changes PiS has undertaken so far prompted Reporters Without Borders, an advocacy group, to drop Poland from 18th to 47th place in its annual press freedom ranking.
“I’m not saying it was good before and now it’s bad. I’m saying it was bad but now it’s a nightmare,” said Maciej Mrozowski, a professor at Warsaw’s social sciences SWPS University who conducted a March study of bias at the country’s main public and private newscasts for the country’s telecommunications regulator.
Krzysztof Skowroński, the head of the Polish Journalists Association, rejected that criticism, saying that if public television is taken together with private networks, which tend to be more critical of the ruling party, then “there is balance.”
TVP rebuffed the accusation of bias, telling POLITICO in a statement that its news programs are “prepared according to journalistic standards of reliability and objectivity.”
‘Repolonizing’ private media
Although the Polish government’s main focus is on revamping public radio and television, Kaczyński has complained about the power of foreign companies, mainly German, in the Polish media market. Polska Press Group, owned by Verlagsgruppe Passau, dominates local newspapers. Ringier Axel Springer, a Swiss-German joint venture, controls Onet.pl, a popular internet portal, as well as the largest tabloid Fakt and Newsweek Polska. (Axel Springer is the co-owner of POLITICO in Europe.)
“We have to undertake the repolonization of the media. We have to be brave and not allow ourselves to be terrorized, either here or eventually in the European Union,” Kaczyński said in a Facebook chat. He called for a “step by step” effort to buy back foreign controlled media so that “they become Polish to the largest possible percent.”
Government control over public broadcasters is nothing new in Europe.
Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi had his Mediaset private broadcaster as well as a grip on the Rai public broadcaster when he was prime minister. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s government also keeps a close eye on public television, although the main TV channel’s news program has seen steep falls in viewer numbers since radical changes made a year ago.
Mrozowski of SWPS University argues that few European countries have seen anything like the changes now happening in Poland.
“Every criteria shows that public television has left the standards accepted in the rest of Europe,” he said. “Polish media never really met those standards, but such one-sided television and such lies haven’t been seen in Poland since 1989.”