Poland will liquidate its state TV broadcaster, radio, and news agency, the Polish culture minister said Wednesday, fueling a public spat between Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s new government and the right-wing former ruling party over the country’s media.
International observers have for years warned that Poland’s newsrooms had become little more than government mouthpieces under the former right-wing ruling party, and Tusk’s pro-European coalition took power this month promising sweeping changes aimed at depoliticising the media.
But human rights groups warn that Tusk’s changes also challenge democratic norms.
Tusk’s media shutdown is “a bad day for freedom,” some say
Polish television screens abruptly went blank last week as baton-wielding police were sent into the headquarters of state broadcaster TVP. Live streams were cut, websites were taken down, and YouTube accounts frozen: a dramatic shutdown of the media that many see as undemocratic. “It is a bad day for freedom when a government uses state power to shut down a press in any country,” Peter Doran of The Foundation for Defense of Democracies wrote in the New York Post. In enacting the sweeping media shutdown, Tusk’s coalition has opted for a “scorched earth policy” instead of using legal process to appoint new managers and adjust the editorial tone, Doran wrote, adding that in order to uphold democracy, Tusk’s challenge now will be to protect the political free speech of his critics.
Regional media still in grip of right-wing former governing party
Despite the dramatic liquidation, Tusk’s efforts will only go so far because most of the country’s regional media is still owned by Polish state-owned oil company Orlen – whose chief executive remains a staunch ally of the former ruling PiS, according to newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. After Orlen in 2020 took over Polska Press — whose outlets reach nearly 17 million readers across the country — reporters said they have been unable to cover topics such as LGBTQ issues or refugee rights, according to a analysis by Reporting Democracy.
Human rights groups fear state media could become a political football
While Polish state media agencies under the PiS were widely regarded as propaganda outlets, human rights groups say Tusk’s shutdown sets a dangerous precedent for how future governments could reform media for their own benefit. “Public media cannot be electoral prey for subsequent parties,” the independent Polish Media Council said, adding that it is the job of public media to keep a check on power “regardless of who holds that power.” Meanwhile, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights argued that Tusk’s reforms raise “serious legal doubts.” Sacking the heads of the agencies constitutes extra-parliamentary initiatives that are incompatible with the mission of a free press, the group said.