Author: Mehwisch Khan
On January 7, 2015, Andrej Duda, the current Polish president and key member of Poland’s right wing ‘The Law and Justice Party’ (PiS), approved a media bill that has sparked substantial controversy in his country. The new Radio and Television Bill allows a political figure, the Treasury Minister, to hire and fire senior figures in public radio and television. The new hiring process, which will no longer be under the control of the National Broadcasting Council, facilitates restrictions on media freedom, censorship and the dispersal of biased information.
Jarosław Kaczyński, PiS’ leader, is of the opinion that the media law reforms represent “good changes”. On the contrary, in response to the new bill, a coalition of press freedom groups have taken ample issue with the fact that the law threatens media independence, protesting against it and filing complaints. Since the bill’s implementation on 7 May 2016, more than 50,000 protesters gathered in Warsaw to protest against the media bill reforms. Since the bill’s signing into law, several thousand demonstrations, such as “free media” protests, were held in January in the cities of Poznan, Krakow and Wrozclaw.
The European Commission has also voiced its concern that Poland may be jeopardising European Union (EU) values by approving a law which gives the government direct control over recruitment in television and radio broadcasting. On 6 January 2016, Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s Vice-President, sent a letter to Poland’s Foreign and Justice minister stressing that ‘media freedom and pluralism is essential to the functions of the EU’. The OSCE’s representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatović, also expressed her opinion on the matter: ‘I fear the hastily introduced changes will endanger the basic conditions of independence, objectivity and impartiality of public service broadcasters.’ This view has been corroborated by many other organisations within Europe. Media watchdogs in Europe are also concerned about the potential lack of impartiality of the Polish international channel TVP and Polish radio. As they are now media platforms which are under the control of a National Media Council, which has close ties to PiS.
In response to the criticism of the recent media law, Polish foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, stated that his government “only wants to cure our country of new illnesses.” He defined this illness to be “a new mixture of cultures and races, a world made of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy and who battle all signs of religion.”
According to the BBC, public Polish radio reaches over half of the population, with four national radio stations and 17 regional stations. According to the poll, 73% of the Polish nationals come across their information through the TV, 47% through the radio and 46% through the press. While this does not necessarily demonstrate that polish people trust their sources, it shows they are willing to expose themselves to the version of reality which the PiS party is promoting.
Moreover, the swift passing of the media law demonstrates the undemocratic nature of the decision-making process of the PiS government. The Polish legislative process normally is a seven stage process with three stages dedicated to readings and revisions of the bills. The media bill which was a non emergency bill was approved by president Duda, just two days after the first draft was submitted to Parliament.
These actions imply a potential autocratic behaviour. The approval of new surveillance laws in Poland in February 2016, which expand government access to digital data and loosen restrictions on police spying, have only exacerbated the issue. Amnesty International called these new laws “a major blow to human rights.” The new media and surveillance law reforms contradict the commitments made by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in its 2012 ‘Declaration on Public Service Media Governance’. Section III (10) acknowledges the need to undergo a “transition from State to public institutions [in order to] define the necessary level of independence from the State.” It further promotes media organisations’ accountability to a wide range of stakeholders in order to protect high levels of integrity. Conversely, the passing of the new Polish media laws gives the current conservative government more leeway to control state run television and radio and potentially promote biased agendas.
In response to these recent Polish reforms, the EU Commission has launched for the first time, a formal investigation into the Rule of Law in a Member State. The Rule of Law procedure was introduced at EU level in 2014, to deal with Member States’ lapses. The Polish government is urged to respond to the Commission’s concerns quickly and make necessary amendments. Failure to do so may result in paying punitive damages and a step-by-step action plan for the Polish government to follow. Polish media makers and institutions such as Association of European Journalists (AEJ) and International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) continue to voice their opposition to the bill through different modes of protest.
The phenomenon of political interference and restrictions in the mediatic field is not exclusive to Poland. In 2010, Hungary also introduced a restrictive Media Act which gave a newly created National Media and Infocommunications Authority the right to regulate all domestic and international media. The broad and ambiguous terms of the act such as “balanced coverage from all media” are left to the authority alone to decide. Consequently, allowing for censorship and subjecting media interpretation to the impartiality of an authority, who may hold strong and regressive views on key issues such as human rights. In other parts of Europe, such as Belarus, amendments were made to the country’s already restrictive media laws. In 2015, Internet censorship was introduced to block independent news sites such as Charter 97. Legislation is not the only form of restriction, in November 2013, web filters were promoted by United Kingdom’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, as a means to crack down on online pornography and making the internet safer for children. However, other sites dealing with LGBTI issues, sex education and even domestic violence and rape were also purposefully blocked.
In an effort to prevent restrictive measures spreading across Europe, new initiatives are starting to be developed. For instance, a platform focused on cooperatively tackling media problems is Mapping Media Freedom, a project which identifies threats, violations and limitations faced by press members throughout the European Union and neighbouring countries. The platform enables a secure tool to submit and search reports of threats and violations to media freedom. Further publications, training opportunities, access to legal material and support is available via the resource centre. Specifically regarding Poland, after a constructive meeting on 17 May, 2016 between Council of Europe experts and the Deputy Minister of Culture and National Heritage, Mr Czabański, an accredited opinion assessment was published in June aiming to create and continue the dialogue of bringing Poland’s media law in line with European standards. While this assessment provides a start in the right direction, substantial efforts at the European and national levels need to be conducted in order to ensure media freedom again in Poland.