The leader of Poland’s largest opposition party, Donald Tusk, has pledged that if he becomes prime minister after the upcoming general elections, he will change the management of public TV (TVP) within 24 hours .
National television and public radio has come under fire for broadcasting the ruling Conservatives’ (PiS) election material and marginalising the opposition.
During a rally in Bydgoszcz on September 27, Tusk said: “Public television is ours and not theirs. It does not belong to any party but to all Poles. It is a common good which we all pay for in order to have objective information, not party propaganda.”
He claimed that if he won the election on October 15, after forming a government he would only require “24 hours to ensure that television which serves PiS and the government will once more be truly public”.
Tusk refused to reveal how he would achieve his objective, only saying that, “We will not need any legislation nor co-operation from President [Andrzej] Duda because we have the legal tools required to return effective control over public television.”
The opposition leader, who was Polish PM (2007-2014) and then President of the European Council (2014-2019), added that when “television becomes public once more it will devote a lot of time to telling the truth about what PiS did while in power”.
The comment about how public television would behave if the opposition takes office suggests an exchange of one set of politicians exercising control over the public TV network for another.
It also puts into question election promises by the opposition that they would introduce legislation to make public media appointments independent of the political process.
The current legal status of TVP is that of a publicly owned corporation whose board is selected by the National Media Council in which the present ruling (PiS) party has a clear majority. To overturn that would require legislation which might then be vetoed by President Duda.
Therefore, to achieve a quick change in the management of public television of the kind promised by Tusk, the new government would be forced to put the corporation into a state of liquidation. It would need to appoint a receiver who would side-line the present TVP board and take over the management function.
All the opposition parties, including the right-wing Confederation party, which has been largely ignored by public media, have criticised the current set-up. They have complained bitterly about what they claim is the way news and current affairs programmes are skewed towards promoting the ruling party and attacking or marginalising the opposition.
The latest controversy involving public TV and radio relates to the fact that the outlets have been broadcasting, free of charge, campaign clips produced by PiS in news and other current affairs programmes.
A senior journalist who has worked for TVP news and still produces programmes for the corporation and therefore cannot be named, spoke to Brussels Signal. He said the broadcasting of ruling party campaign material could lead to legal challenges as it means public media are directly taking part in the campaign.
Professor of law Marcin Górski told Brussels Signal that such practices contravene both election and public broadcasting laws. These grant access for all parties to free air-time in the final two weeks of an election campaign period, as well as allowing them to broadcast paid-for advertising.
“Presenting fragments of the PiS election broadcasts as part of a news programme is in law classified as agitating for the party and candidate,” said Górski. He added: “Such material can only be broadcast in the time allocated to the party and appropriately marked as an election broadcast.”
He said campaigning in an unlawful manner is, according to electoral law, punishable with fines up to €25,000. Authorities “should be standing guard to stop such practices, but they are not”.
PiS has a majority in the State Election Commission (PKW), which organises the election and signs off on the result before final certification by the Supreme Court. The PKW would not be drawn on whether the behaviour of public media would constitute grounds for a challenge to the election results.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is monitoring the run-up to the election as well as the poll itself, was more forthcoming. In an interim report on the election campaign released on September 29 it described the Polish media landscape as “pluralistic but highly polarised” with “very few examples of objective media” evident.
The OSCE observers’ mission began on September 13 and has produced its interim report. That revealed the vast majority of those it interviewed and material it assessed showed that public media in Poland is heavily biased in favour of the government and the ruling party. It found the opposition was often being marginalised or, as in the case of the Confederation party, totally excluded.
On the other hand, the OSCE also reported that the commercial TVN network owned by Discovery was “highly critical of the government and the ruling party” and that the Polish-owned Polsat network was “largely neutral though restrained in questioning the government”.
PiS denies that it controls public media. It argued that public media are now presenting “a Polish point of view” and have simply challenged the liberal hegemony of broadcast media that existed before PiS came to power.