Poland’s State of the Media

How public television became an outlet for the Law and Justice party—and what it means for democracy.

By Dariusz Kalan, a Central Europe correspondent in Warsaw.
Supporters of the Law and Justice party watch the announcement of the results of the Polish parliamentary elections on television screens in Warsaw on Oct. 13.
Supporters of the Law and Justice party watch the announcement of the results of the Polish parliamentary elections on television screens in Warsaw on Oct. 13. Carsten Koall/Getty Images

WARSAW, Poland—Asked about the difference between Poland’s public television station, TVP, before 2015 and after, a veteran journalist who works at the network was quick to respond. “Ruling politicians,” they said, “had never had that kind of impact on television” before.

“They have audacity and courage to approach reporters and say, ‘I want to say something, and you have to record me.’ This is our everyday life,” the journalist, who insisted on anonymity, said in early October. After a long moment of reflection, they added: “You will not find true information in our television.”

TVP, whose two flagship channels were among the country’s most popular in 2018, has for the last several years been squarely under the control of Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, which clung to power in elections in mid-October. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, these elections were “administratively prepared well.” But the voters’ “informed choice was undermined by a lack of impartiality in the media, especially the public broadcaster,” noted Jan Petersen, the head of an election observation mission.

It was not the first time TVP’s reporting raised concerns. This fall, 54 members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe called TVP “a propaganda channel for the ruling party.” Reporters Without Borders similarly stated that Poland’s public media outlets “have been transformed into government propaganda mouthpieces.”

Many openly admitted that TVP is purposefully keeping quiet about PiS scandals.

This fall, in interviews with almost a dozen current and former TVP journalists and executives, most asked to go unnamed. None argued that TVP’s political news has been objective. In fact, many openly admitted that TVP is purposefully keeping quiet about PiS scandals, gives airtime almost exclusively to pro-PiS voices, and has campaigned against the party’s opponents. Those I spoke to who back PiS largely argued that the hard line was both necessary to ensure a second PiS term and a legitimate response to the private media’s alleged support of the opposition.

Interlocutors on both sides believe that there is nothing unique in what is happening in Poland. Rather, their country is just one among many suffering the rise of fake news. According to Ryszard Bankowicz, the head of the Polish Council of Media Ethics, a nonpartisan body promoting principles of ethical journalism, readers and viewers around the world have ceased to want real information. “They chose a given newspaper or TV station not in order to find the truth but to confirm their own beliefs or take a side against or for someone,” Bankowicz said. “And many journalists do not know principles of ethical journalism. This is a worldwide trend, and Poland is its victim.”

But not everyone has given up. This year, Bankowicz, took a public stand on one of the most serious accusations against TVP, made by Bogdan Borusewicz, a former democratic opposition activist under the communist regime and a former speaker of the Senate, among others: that it had incited hatred against Pawel Adamowicz, Gdansk’s mayor, who was stabbed to death at a January charity event. Adamowicz, a popular liberal politician, had been a target of numerous TVP reports that had suggested he was corrupt and had close ties with local businessmen.

In a report published in February, Bankowicz wrote that “the authors of these publications manipulated the facts … in order to present Adamowicz as an unreliable person.” He concluded that “TVP spews propaganda, which serves to destroy opponents of the ruling party.” However, he refused to comment on whether violations of journalistic ethics contributed to Adamowicz’s death.

“TVP is certainly not to blame for this tragic event,” said Maciej Stanecki, who was TVP’s deputy chairman from 2016 to 2019. But he was quick to add: “But for allowing the radicalization of the public opinion, of the crowd … well, I think that every media person must be aware that such responsibility exists.” Stanecki, a film producer, is proud of his achievements at TVP during his leadership, which include the television’s technological development, but he is aware that the network’s reputation has been tarnished.

When TVP started getting politically involved, “I thought it was a childhood disease, a rebound,” he said. But “it is regrettable what happened later,” referencing the turn the network has taken since Jacek Kurski became the PiS-nominated TVP chairman in January 2016.

Over the last few decades, Kurski, a former journalist, member of the Polish parliament, and member of the European Parliament representing PiS, has made his name as a political fighter. His nomination as the head of the public television broadcaster was met with surprise among many. Installed at TVP, “he has never stopped being politician,” said a TVP journalist and a PiS supporter who knows Kurski. Asked if the source has ever witnessed Kurski receiving direct instructions from PiS, this person smiled. “He doesn’t have to get any instructions. He is a factual decision-maker.”

Neither Kurski nor a TVP spokesperson responded to several interview requests. TVP deputy chairwoman Marzena Paczuska agreed to speak on behalf of TVP, but she canceled shortly before the scheduled interview.

One source of Kurski’s strength may be his ties with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of PiS and behind-the-scenes leader of Poland, who has ignored distress even from within his own circle over the declining quality of TVP. Eight months after he was appointed, the National Media Council, a body the PiS government established to oversee the state television, radio, and press agencies, made an unsuccessful attempt to dismiss Kurski. It did not make public its reasons for doing so, and Kurski even maintained his post after a former employee revealed that, under his leadership, TVP had hired spies to follow certain journalists and other opponents, including Krzysztof Czabanski, the head of the National Media Council—a charge TVP denied.

In mid-September, I met Czabanski, who was a deputy cultural minister, in his office. “It doesn’t worry me. I accept the TVP statement and see no reason to deal with it further,” he said. “Current situation in TVP is not perfect,” he added, “and I hope the television’s programing will be enriched. Still, it is much healthier than before.”

In many ways, today’s byzantine media conflicts are rooted in the 1990s and early 2000s, an era when liberal outlets, such as highly influential daily Gazeta Wyborcza, dominated. At that time, right-wing or conservative journalists felt shut out.

Piotr Semka, a veteran journalist of Do Rzeczy, a right-wing weekly, claimed to me that whenever he or his colleagues were attacked by Wyborcza, they struggled to have their response heard. In his eyes, the market “has become more balanced, but the left side still has the edge.” Most of the private media, he pointed out, is critical toward PiS. Semka admitted, though, that it isn’t normal for journalists to be such active participants in political conflict. “But currently there is no way to get out of it,” he said.

It is true that in Poland there are no major conservative private media networks. Efforts to build them have resulted instead in a few smaller television programs or websites with limited audiences. To the extent that PiS can capture TVP, it finally gives the party a voice in mainstream media, something that Kurski admitted in an interview in August. “Public television,” he said, “is obliged to present what authorities with a democratic mandate have to offer.”

Yet, in reality, TVP is legally obliged to produce diverse programs characterized by “pluralism, impartiality, balance.” And the broadcaster is supported by taxpayer money, not private investors. And its budget keeps growing. In May, a PiS-dominated parliament granted TVP about $290 million in special support—far larger than its budget in 2017 and 2018.

PiS expects returns on that investment. Katarzyna Chojnowska, a foreign desk journalist who worked at TVP for seven years, said that after PiS took power, reporters were forbidden to use the terms “far-right” and “populism.” “There is a ban on criticizing [U.S. President Donald] Trump,” she said, “and [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban,” who are both seen as allies of PiS. She also remembered an occasion on which, while preparing a story about refugee crisis, she was ordered not to zoom in on crying babies so as not to evoke positive emotions toward migrants.

In the past, she recalled, “we gave voice to ruling politicians, but at least editors demanded to create a whole story around it, with all the context and opposite voices, where we could put their statements.” But now, she says, “the statement itself becomes a story.”

Another journalist, still at TVP, called working there a “daily struggle of conscience.” They said instructions from supervisors are given orally. “Until recently, they beat around the bush, but now it’s openly said we’re forbidden to feature opposition.”

Given the channel’s reach, it seems improbable that TVP’s coverage had no effect on the October election. But if the network wants to influence politics for the long term, it may face an uphill battle in some quarters. According a poll in May, 38 percent of respondents thought TVP was unreliable, which is the highest figure among television networks. The more PiS is criticized for a lack of objectivity, the more its politicians talk about the need to rescue media from liberal or foreign control. Over the years, they have proposed “repolonizing” the media, meaning bringing foreign-owned media outlets under Polish control, introducing a law against “fake news” with hefty fines, or, most recently, creating “journalistic self-government,” which would give the new body the power to decide who can work in the media. None of these ideas has been implemented yet.

At one point during the interviews, one of my interlocutors, a TVP journalist and a PiS supporter, tried to predict what would happen with media in a few years. “Someday PiS will lose power,” this person said. “Do you think the current TVP line will, in the longer run, hurt or help conservatives? I will tell you: It will weaken them terribly.”

Dariusz Kalan is a Central Europe correspondent in Warsaw. Twitter: @Dariusz_Kalan