Polish Public Broadcasting in the Eye of the Storm
Contribution to AEJ media freedom conference Panel on ‘Public audiovisual media facing new threats’ in Paris, December 6 2019
Thank you for this opportunity to speak on this subject in the context of my country, Poland, where public service media has been captured by the government which was elected in 2015. That government is blatantly using news and comment programming on public radio and television to support it to the population, especially during election campaigns.
When the public radio and television came under the control of this government and following the dismissal of over 230 key staff, European media freedom organisations including the AEJ, RSF and the EBU protested publicly.
They warned about the politicisation of the public media. The effects came to be fully felt in the autumn of last year when we had local government elections, and then in May’s European Parliament election and again in October with the general election in Poland. Next summer we face a presidential election and a repeat of the same one-side coverage now looks inevitable. Each time, as our close monitorng has shown, the public media has conducted precisely targeted campaigns against the opposition combined with exaggerated praise for government policies. The monitoring which we have conducted in the Society of Journalists, an independent group, working with AEJ members, has shown the public service media massively favouring the government together with overwhelming criticism of the opposition.
This amounts to a clear breach of Poalnd’s media laws against bias in public service media laws as well as the country’s election laws which require that party political campaign broadcasts for particular parties be accounted for by them as an election expense. The products that they are routinely broadcasting have been assessed by election observers and clearly identified as a use of ‘administrative resources’ by one party, namely the ruling PiS (Law and Justice) Party.
Our media regulator KRRiT has notably failed to do anything about this, probably because the head of KRRiT is an active member of the ruling party. The OSCE’s observation mission to our general election in October concluded in its report that „the distinct editorial bias of the media, especially the public broadacster, and the absence of active oversight, adversely impacted the opportunity of voters to make an informed choice”.
This is the key phrase : that heavy bias „adversely impacted the oppportunity of voters to make an informed choice”. That is indeed the core message of this presentation.
It means that our democracy in Poland is fundamentally flawed because voters, thanks to this manipulation of the public service media, are not provided with the proper means to sensibly choose their representatives, and to consider issues which will determine their futures, and indeed the future of our continent and beyond. Getting the flow of quality information and comment to people is now a massive problem facing us in the media. The hard realityis that in many cases the present ‘captive’ or enfeebled state of public service media means that we are simply unable to do our jobs properly. This is a burning issue which also faces the relevant EU institutions, which habitually declare that a free and strong media in member states is crucial to a healthy democracy but are faling to do enough to make this happen.
This might hopefully be about to change. In the past few months I have read many commission and parliamentary documents on the threat disinformation poses for elections in europe. All of these documents make the link between a healthy democracy and a well functioning and free media. But when the Commission refers to disinformation it means ‘coming from abroad (i.e., Russia)’. And indeed mechanisms have been put in place by the EU to guard against that. But when disinformation occurs in a member state and is directed at EU citizens by politicians inside EU member states, as in our case in Poland, then the European Commission says this is a member state competence and that there is little that they can do to help.
But if the EU really wants to fight disinformation from abroad then officials must recognise that what is needed is a sensible and honest domestic media, and this must include an unbiased public service media. This is the first line of defence. People who trust their own media will not give credence to Sputnik or RT or trolls.
Can little be done as the European Commission says? In our Polish case we have been monitoring the output of our news media before elections and will be doing so again next May for the presidential elections . We do this because we have a duty to check if our free elections are also fair. We also have a duty to inform our fellow EU citizens if the people elected in our national elections were elected in a fair way.
Also we are trying to make common cause with concerned people in other member states so we can compare notes with them on how elections in other countries are being handled; and whether propaganda techniques similar to the ones we suffer in Poland have also been used in those other countries during elections.
We have hoped to gain meaningful support in this quest from the European Parliament’s so far unfulfilled efforts to set up a so-called Intergroup, whose goal would be to actively support free media and independent public media. We have also urged the Parliament to push other EU instiutions to put pressure on countries where the media is controlled by their governments. At the moment the European Parliament has no oversight on the way its members are elected, members who, may I remind you, have an influence on the lives of all of us.
Observance of the rule of law in EU member states is crucial. If the proposal for annual ‘rule of law’ surveys by the European Commission of all member states (a plan which was recently vetoed by Poland and Hungary) become a reality they should also pay great attention to the situation of the media in each country. Currently, the Commission seems to be shying away from this idea and we must persuade them to put media freedom high on their rule of law check list.
This would include the new audiovisual directive which urges member states to make sure that their media regulators are ‘functionally independent’. This would greatly help us in Poland where the media regulator KRRiT is far from independent of the ruling party.
If the Commission will be unable to conduct annual rule of law surveys then the European Parliament must step in and do these surveys, themselves. We should also possibly look to the establishment of a network of NGOs which could monitor, at the very least, media coverage in member states at election times. Funding schemes for NGOs currently being prepared by the Commission for organisations working to defend human rights in member states could be used to support such an effort to supplement the monitoring being done by the media centre in Florence and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom.
There can be no media freedom without the rule of law. But at the same time a free media is essential if rule of law is to be defended effectively. We find this in Poland where the government runs hate campaigns against judges and lawyers. And a free media are their main means of defence.