Revolution in Polish Public Media: New Government Takes Control [AUDIO]

A cross-border talk on Polish renewed polarization with focus on the media and the intervention of the newly-formed Tusk government in them.

Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat answers Vladimir Mitev’s questions about polarisation in Polish society, where the media has become a political trophy for whoever is in power. The timeline of the conversation is as follows. The entire transcription of the recording is available below.

00:00 Polish Parliament passed a law to restore journalist standards in state-owned media, leading to the dismissal of current presidents and appointment of new supervisory boards, sparking controversy about how this was done.

02:56 Both sides in Poland are using democratic values to justify their actions regarding the state media, leading to a lack of respect for the media’s mission.

04:39 Both parties in Poland weaponize notions such as freedom of speech, democracy or sovereignty, leading to polarization and little hope for change, as people are constantly dragged into a fight over symbols and domination.

06:50 Young people in Poland are struggling with housing and public service issues, while politicians are not addressing the problem, leading to a potential demand for change.

08:44  Media could play a crucial role in depolarization in Poland, but the current situation requires profound change, particularly in terms of financing and independence.

10:04 Polish journalists survive and produce quality journalism with support from readers, viewers, and international grants, as public media in Poland lacks good quality and became biased and polarized under the Law and Justice party.

11:58 Public and private media in Poland are being used for political purposes, making it difficult to create high-quality, non-profit media.

13:50  The need for change in Polish media and politics, hoping for less polarization and more care for daily life issues, criticizing the ruling party for divisive rhetoric and calling for positive change.

Vladimir Mitev: Welcome to another cross-border conversation. This time we focus on Poland, where a new prime minister, Donald Tusk, recently came to power. One of the first acts of his government was to reintroduce a greater degree of polarisation into Polish society by changing the heads of a number of state media. Malgorzata, can you start by telling us what actually happened? And then we will try to reflect on these developments!

Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Yes. Not much time has passed since we last talked about developments in Poland. And yes, things are moving very fast. On 19 December the Polish Parliament passed a law, which is a kind of appeal to the government to restore proper journalistic standards in the state media, namely the Polish Radio, the Polish National Television or TVP and the Polish Press Agency. In response, the Minister of Culture, acting on the basis of the Commercial Companies Code, as the representative of the owner of the state media, dismissed all the current chairmen of the management boards of the public media and appointed new supervisory boards, which in turn chose new people to run the media.

As you can see, this is quite a controversial legal construction. Some legal experts say that different legal orders have been mixed up. One thing is to declare that the media is not functioning properly and is not fulfilling its constitutional duty to provide society with unbiased and valid information. And another is to intervene in the supervisory boards of state-owned media on the basis of the Commercial Code. 

The general impression is that the new government wanted to act as quickly as possible and didn’t want to wait for the so-called National Media Council to be re-elected and for new people to come in to appoint new heads of the state media. Instead, they wanted to get rid of the people in the state media who were loyal to the previous government as soon as possible. And as you can see, this is a highly controversial move that is already being challenged by some lawyers and defended by others. It has divided our society or simply increased the polarisation that already existed.

We can also see how different ideas are hijacked and how both sides base their actions on very important democratic values. Law and Justice, which has made the public media the centre of its own propaganda (a very disgusting propaganda at times), is now saying that freedom of speech has been violated. These politicians are calling on people to defend free media. At the same time, it is quite questionable to see Tusk supporting this way of dealing with the free media, while during his election campaign and all the previous years when he was in opposition he said that his party had different standards from Law and Justice. He used to claim that his party would respect procedures, would respect laws, and basically the restoration of the rule of law in every aspect of the country was its primary goal. He said that this was the main reason why they were competing for power. At the moment, however, we have the impression that each of the main political camps basically wants the state media for itself, for its propaganda, its message, its opinion, and nobody really cares about the mission of the media.

In this polarisation, we see both parties weaponizing certain concepts and at the same time adopting a hegemonic approach. When both parties weaponise concepts and seek hegemony, they appear to be alienated from the authentic function of the rule of law or freedom of speech. They’re just weaponizing it, using it as a tool in their war against the other. I wonder where change could come from in these specific circumstances of great polarisation in Poland, which are not new but have existed for a long time.

It is a very difficult and at the same time a very important question. It is becoming more and more difficult to be a kind of third way in Poland. It is much harder than it was a few years ago not to be involved in this existential struggle between Law and Justice and Civic Platform. In theory, there should be such a possibility, because both parties come from a right-wing movement and both claim to be right-wing. In theory, there could be some kind of left-wing opposition to both of them, but the reality is that the largest social democratic party in Poland is now a Tusk supporter, and a very ardent one. Attempts of any kind of alternative show that the left is very weak and almost invisible in the public landscape.

The question was whether you could see a change coming. But I do not think it will come any time soon. I would like to leave the viewers with an open question. What will happen in, let’s say, 2 or 3 years when people realise that they are constantly being dragged into this battle between two camps, which is about symbols, which is about domination, hegemony and dictating the interpretation of the world, while existential problems are not resolved, and we have existential problems of real format.

We have, for example, the housing problem, which is becoming more acute every year. We have basically returned to the situation we had before the Second World War, where young people could not afford to live in a major city. They couldn’t afford to rent an apartment, or they couldn’t find another cheap place to live, and so they had to give up their ambitions about studying at university. We also come back to the situation where young families can’t afford to have a baby because they’re still living with their parents, because they can’t afford to have their own home, whether it’s a rented home or one they’re taking out for a loan, even if you have a 30-year perspective. The housing situation is very, very difficult and has a lot of negative consequences for people’s lives. And yet it’s something that politicians really don’t want to deal with.

I’m not even going to mention other areas of public services that are also in need of complex repair, such as transport, public transport or the question of public education. In the latter case, he has at least promised teachers some pay rises from next year, and I really hope he does. But, and the question is, if, over time, people see that they are being dragged back into some kind of symbolic words, and in fact nobody cares about their everyday lives, how would they react? Will we continue to choose the path of everyone dealing with their own problems, or at best their own family problems? Or will we try to actively organise or demand a different kind of politics?

My guess is that the media could play an important role in this depolarisation, because the polarisation that we see is taking place through the media. It takes place in the media in Poland too, not just on the streets. So what is the current situation of the Polish media in these conditions of polarisation? And where could there be change in the media and journalism? I am talking about positive change, which probably means depolarisation or perhaps the establishment of the media as a truly independent institution of society.

Well, the media in Poland really need a profound change and it is very difficult for me to say where this change could start. Basically, if you want to have a good quality media unit, you need funding. And it’s not easy to find that funding. There have been some new media initiatives that have emerged under the rule of Law and Justice that have been funded by more liberal, pro-human rights journalists. Those of us who not only wanted to see what Law and Justice was doing with the rule of law, but who also wanted to offer some broader reporting. Some of these initiatives survived, some of them did not. Some of them built real communities of readers, listeners, viewers who supported them with money. And thanks to international grants, they managed to survive and produce really good quality journalism.

But I would say that this is something for people who already have a good political orientation, who are really engaged not only in the media sphere, and who have an above-average political awareness. What we lack are good quality mass media that want to educate readers, listeners, that want to engage in dialogue with them and that do not think that they have a political mission, first of all, to promote one party or another.

And here I have to say that what was done to the public media under Law and Justice was really a blow from which we want to recover very quickly, because we have to remember that even if public television was not perfect before Law and Justice came to power, it was not as biased, not as polarised as it became when Law and Justice started to put their loyal people into the public media. Of course, the public media was quite sympathetic to, let’s say, the liberal mainstream, especially to business. Nevertheless, they didn’t hesitate to write about political scandals or even to criticise members of the government for their bad actions. And this has completely disappeared under Law and Justice.

We’re in a paradoxical situation where the media that should be constitutionally responsible for bringing good quality content to the people, the public media, are now being treated like a political trophy, and there’s not much interest on the part of those who have private capital to fund media that should be at a really good level and weren’t and weren’t just focused on profit, the privately-owned media, like the various TV channels, like the main liberal media that were on Tusk’s side all the time. They also produced quite good content at times, but it was always subordinated to the logic of political engagement and the logic of profit.

I don’t have an easy solution here. I could say at the moment that the solution is grassroots or, let’s say, collectively owned media made by enthusiasts. But as a person who is involved in that. I’m absolutely aware that it’s extremely difficult, and maybe people who are trying to make such media have to work somewhere else at the same time, which of course means that they can’t devote as much energy to the media activity. So maybe this sounds very pessimistic, but I don’t see any easy solutions for change at the moment, and I can only hope that the changing political situation will finally make people demand that we don’t want polarisation, we just want media, we want politicians, we want public institutions that care about our daily lives and care about things that affect our daily lives.

For change to happen, it first has to be part of people’s consciousness. It has to be understood that it is necessary. To what extent do Poles realise that polarisation is bad? And to what extent do they demand that polarisation in society be overcome?

I wouldn’t say that there is a great demand for it. In recent years there have been some attempts to create political parties that claim to be the third way. We now have this coalition of parties that is actually called the Third Way. Their ambition was to offer something different from the two main camps. But in the end all these parties, virtually all these parties, either disappeared or ended up in the Donald Tusk camp.

It is obviously very difficult to say today that we want the best of both camps, that we want both the rule of law and social transfers, we want both participation in the European community and a sense of understanding of our Polish identity. Today, if you start any kind of political, political organisation, or even a non-political but somehow related to public life, you will immediately be asked which camp you belong to. And if you say that you are not in either camp, you will be criticised by both sides, and perhaps even more so by the liberal camp, which at some point came up with the theory that if you want to keep an equal distance from both parties, you are actually an ally of Law and Justice. At the moment it’s really difficult for us to be seen as an alternative to both camps.

And I will say that if the new government starts to introduce austerity measures or continues to take state property, it will continue to subordinate state property to its political goals, people will rally around Law and Justice. Then it would be much easier for Law and Justice to say: “Look, we made mistakes, but at least we secured the social transfers, something that our opponents never did”. And this is a discourse that will be very difficult for any third option to counter, because at least a third of Polish society has a high level of trust in Law and Justice because they promised things and they delivered. And that is something that not every political party can boast of.

I take inspiration from what you said about the liberal camp claiming that whoever is looking for a non-alignment option is supporting their enemies. This is, I think, the same logic that Stalin had when he said: “Those who are not with us are against us”. But I am also inspired by another important words of Stalin, who says that the cadres or perhaps the experts in our situation in democracies solve everything. So I really hope that the Polish people and society can have such leaders and experts, and also citizens, who are able to make changes to overcome this constant fixation on the other half of society, which is seen as absolute evil. So we will certainly be watching to see whether such people emerge and whether there will be change, and we will also be following the affirmation of Polish society.

Postscript: A few days after we recorded our conversation, the former directors of the Polish state media refuse to accept that they have been replaced. Some Law and Justice MPs are actively helping them by occupying parts of the media headquarters and offices under the pretext of controlling them (which they are entitled to do as MPs). However, both the state television and the press agency managed to resume work, as most of the pro-Law and Justice journalists had already quit their jobs when their favourite party lost the elections. It seems that Law and Justice will not be able to mobilise its voters to take to the streets ‘in defence of free media’. At the same time, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights said that the government’s takeover of public media ‘raises serious legal doubts’ and could even violate Council of Europe standards. This is the first time Tusk’s government has received such a warning.

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