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13.06.2016

Poland presses the PAUSE button on new media law

by Jane Whyatt
The controversial new ’big media law’ to permanently change the face of Polish public service broadcasting has been put on hold.
Due to take effect from 1st July, the reform has sparked protests and demonstrations on the streets of the Polish capital Warsaw and all other major cities.

Internationally, there has been concern and political pressure to resist the proposed changes, which follow the ’small media law’ passed in November 2015 by the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS)-led government. Under this small law, the job of hiring and firing senior TV and radio executives was removed from the Broadcasting Council (KRRiT) and switched to the direct control of the Treasury Minister Dawid Jackiewicz. Hundreds of journalists and broadcasters in the national public service broadcasting channels of TVP and Radio Poland lost their jobs, either because they were dismissed or because they resigned in protest. More recently, over one hundred more also lost or quit their jobs in the regional public service stations.

Finding facts in Poland

The European Union Commission has entered a dialogue with the Polish government, An all-party group of MEPs has visited media outlets and the EU’s Venice Commission (the commission for democracy through law, providing legal advice to EU member states) has been travelling to Poland to investigate possible consequences of the new legislation. ECPMF, with our partner organisations the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the International Press Institute (IPI), undertook a fact-finding mission to Warsaw and Wroclaw.
Apparently the internal and international outcry has had an effect: Poland’s deputy minister of culture Krystof Czabanski has announced that the reform will be postponed. According to the government-run news agency PAP, such far-reaching changes would first need to be notified to the EU. Mr Czabanski explains that a draft transitional arrangement or bridging law is being presented to the Sejm (Polish parliament) so that the public service broadcasters can survive until the new ’big law’ is enacted.

Czabanski says the new ’bridge law’ will be more democratic than the current arrangement: "The draft eliminates government's influence on public media. All powers up to now in possession of the Treasury Minister will be redirected to the parliament, with opposition parties having a significant share in them."

Europe’s institutions listen to concerns

Poland’s new media laws were debated at the Council of Europe’s Media Committee meeting in Paris on 1st June. The two Polish representatives walked out of the meeting when ECPMF’s Jane Whyatt started her presentation based on the fact-finding mission. In the presentation she noted that many supporters of the new law point to the increased stability and security that it will bring to public broadcasting. The idea is that Poles will in future be required to pay for public TV and radio through a levy on their electricity bills, based on the number of electrical sockets in their homes or offices. This will bring financial security in a country where only 7% of the population pay the licence fee. PiS supporters also claim that the previous regime abused the public service broadcasting system to show bias in favour of its own policies and politicians, and that a reform of the system is long overdue.

Whyatt also criticised the UK’s White Paper on the future of the BBC as a “step in the Polish direction”. The British government plans in future to directly appoint half of the board that oversees the hiring and firing of senior BBC journalists. And she commented on complaints of political interference at the Spanish national broadcaster and mass sackings in Serbia at RTV Voivodina

At the European Parliament’s next session in Strasbourg on 5th July a long debate is scheduled on the case of Poland. Europe’s law-makers now have more time to try to influence the Polish government to respect European standards of independence and diversity of political opinions in public service broadcasting.

Also the European Commission considered the worrisome developments Poland was undergoing in the last months. In connection to the Constitutional Tribunal, which was also reformed after the latest elections, it first entered a dialogue with the government and then, on 1 June 2016, adopted an Opinion on the Rule of Law in Poland. Through this, the Commission urges to Polish authorities to continue the dialogue, report on the new legislations and consider the European institutions’ critical thoughts.

And Poland’s government has shown that it is prepared to listen to criticism, and think again.



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