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CoE – Polish journalists fight “propaganda takeover”

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Vienna. June 5, 2021

by Edward Steen, Secretary-General, AEJ

Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki

Public campaigns by independent journalists’ organisations in Poland are calling for “strong and public measures” to combat the PiS government’s transformation of public service media into “propaganda tools”.

Poles are not the only ones to challenge the Polish state’s contempt for free media, or editorial independence for anyone, least of all state broadcasters. But Polish journalists may be the first to seize this national bull by the horns. The issue is central for Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová and the European Commission’s current dynamic.

Will its public airing in Strasbourg this week prove the CoE a credible offender of free media? Or for that matter the newly-elected CoE Secretary-General, Croatian Marija Pejčinović Burić? Or indeed for Irish former ace investigative journalist Noel Curran, boss of the EBU?

European government ministers responsible for media at a two-day online policy conference under the aegis of the Council of Europe on June 10-11 will face written appeals to the EBU and the CoE itself calling for serious moves to end state political control over Polish public TV and radio broadcasting. It amounts to a challenge to what has been called “creeping Orbánisation” in Europe.

It could prove a key test of the power of the Strasbourg-based CoE and of the relevance of the Swiss-based EBU, whose most visible achievement in 70 years of existence (as it itself acknowledges) has been the Eurovision Song Contest. Both of them matter, argues AEJ Media Freedom Special Representative William Horsley.

It is notable that on May 28 the EBU’s executive board announced the suspension of Belarussian TV and radio membership because of persistent failures to uphold core values of freedom of expression, independence, and accountability,” argues William Horsley, AEJ Media Freedom Representative.

That decision on Belarus sets an obvious and important precedent.

“It is clearly high time that the relevant Polish authorities – and those in other badly-affected European countries – face real-world consequences for persistently flouting their obligations to uphold the independence and accountability of public broadcasting.”

Systematic government interference in the editorial independence of public media was a central issue in the recently-published 2021 Annual Report by the CoE’s Platform for the Safety of Journalists, of which the AEJ is a partner, along with 13 other NGOs and journalists’ organisations.

It called for governments in ‘high-risk’ countries to implement reforms establishing proper safeguards in line with agreed European standards.

Creeping “Orbánisation” of state broadcasting

In advance of the June 10 conference, the Society of Journalists in Poland, has sent an Open Letter to Marija Pejćinović Burić, the new CoE Secretary-General, and to former Irish RTE boss Noel Curran, Director-General of the Swiss-based European Broadcasting Union.

Krzysztof Bobiński, AEJ chairman in Poland and Board member of the Society of Journalists, says: “Our message is pretty simple. Both these organisations need to exert serious pressure on Polish leaders to end the control of public service media by populist politicians”. 

Both organisations have also received a public appeal from 23 disgruntled employees of Polish Public Radio to “restore the independence of Polish radio”. The Association of Journalists and Authors of Public Radio warns that what is taking place is the “destruction” of Polish public broadcasting, including of the historic Third programme (Trójka), which until recently enjoyed a huge following, especially among younger listeners: See IPI and cf Viktor Orbán’s removal of Klubradio from the airwaves. 

Dialogue” with PiS

The rebellious journalists say the process of degrading/ suborning public media began with the widely-condemned 2015 adoption by the Law and Justice (PiS) party-led government of an “unconstitutional law” taking effective control of the management of public media.

That policy led to a mass-replacement of editorial staff at Polish TV (TVP) and Polish Radio by new appointees prepared to follow the ideological line of the governing party, said the appeal. More than 200 public media employees were forced out in  the purge.

The disgruntled Polish broadcasters point out that they first voiced their complaints to the EBU’s chief, Noel Curran, a year ago, in June 2020. He had replied then with an assurance that he had “opened a dialogue” with the management of PR’s famous Third programme. But the destruction of professionalism in the public radio service continues unabated, say the journalists. (See also: AEJ report, August 2019.)

Call to action for democracy

In their latest message, dated May 30, 2021, the broadcasters argue that the fate of Polish public media is critical for the future of democracy in Europe, and appeal to both CoE and EBU to act jointly and “use all possible means” to restore the independence of public broadcasting in Poland.

The disgruntled broadcasters pointed out that complaints to the EBU’s chief a year ago, in June 2020, had produced an assurance from Mr Curran that he had “opened a dialogue” with the management of Polish Radio’s Third programme. The journalists say the destruction of professionalism in the public radio service continues as before. 

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