100 WVIA Way
Pittston, PA 18640

Phone: 570-826-6144
Fax: 570-655-1180

Copyright © 2024 WVIA, all rights reserved. WVIA is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Poland's new government deprograms its once far-right public media

Supporters of the outgoing Law and Justice party protest outside the headquarters of Poland's state-owned TVP broadcaster after the new government took control last December.
Czarek Sokolowski
/
AP
Supporters of the outgoing Law and Justice party protest outside the headquarters of Poland's state-owned TVP broadcaster after the new government took control last December.

WARSAW, Poland — It's 7:30 in the evening in Warsaw, and public news broadcaster TVP Info is about to broadcast live to millions of viewers across Poland. Producers in a crowded control room scurry in and out, sometimes stopping to peer through a narrow window into a studio where the host reads from a teleprompter.

Everyone looks a little nervous, for at least two reasons: Nearly all of them are new hires, and this is a temporary studio while the police clear the station's downtown Warsaw headquarters of the last remnants of the old government.

"The former leadership are refusing to give up our headquarters and up until recently were refusing to leave the building, so we're here in this old sports newsroom on the edge of town," says TVP Info director Pawel Pluska, who has been on the job for less than a month.

"We're lacking desks, computers, and we're having problems sending and receiving transmissions, but we're figuring it out," he says with a shrug.

After eight years of government under the far-right nationalist Law and Justice party, Polish voters turned up in record numbers in a historic October election that heralded a new, liberal government under the leadership of Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

After being sworn-in in December, Tusk's new government immediately moved to retake the state-funded TVP. Under Law and Justice, the broadcaster had been transformed into a far-right propaganda machine, jeopardizing European Union funding to the country for violating the EU's democracy standards.

Poland's new prime minister, Donald Tusk, in the parliament building in Warsaw shortly before he took office last December.
Omar Marques / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
Poland's new prime minister, Donald Tusk, in the parliament building in Warsaw shortly before he took office last December.

Tusk himself promised to "clean up" the country with an "iron broom," and the pace at which his government has changed TVP has prompted observers to adopt the term as well. And many note that Law and Justice was just as aggressive eight years ago when it first took over the national broadcaster, akin to the BBC in the United Kingdom.

"When Law and Justice came to power, they were in a hurry to take over public media, and they used sort of a legal gimmick to do it by creating a body which was unconstitutional, and charging it with appointing the executive boards of radio and television," says Jacek Kucharczyk, who directs the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw.

He says Law and Justice overlooked the fact that there was already an executive board in charge of the national broadcaster and appointed its own board, which served the party's political interests by hiring loyalists as hosts and reporters.

"It's not that they were politically partisan," says Kucharczyk. "It's that they were transformed into a propaganda outlet on the part of a ruling party whose main task was to attack and demonize the opposition parties and politicians."

The most notorious case of this came in 2019 when Pawel Adamowicz, mayor of the port city of Gdansk — who, according to the city, was the subject of more than 1,800 negative TVP stories in the year 2018 alone — was stabbed to death onstage at a charity event.

His murderer, who had been recently released from prison, took the microphone and blamed Adamowicz and his Civic Coalition party for imprisoning him. Members of the mayor's party said TVP shared responsibility for the murder.

The incident spurred mass protests against TVP, but Kucharczyk says Law and Justice refused to change the tone of its content.

"They could reach to a certain section of the society that was crucial for maintaining the support for this particular party," he says. "So they were, on the one hand, an instrument of party propaganda. But they were, I think more importantly, an instrument of fueling polarization in Poland."

With Law and Justice out, changes to the public broadcaster were swift

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors elections, mentioned in its reports since Law and Justice took office in 2015 that Polish elections weren't fair due to a lack of equal access to impartial media.

A silent protest outside the offices of Poland's state broadcaster commemorated the murder of Gdansk's Mayor Pawel Adamowicz. Many of the mayor's supporters blamed the broadcaster's far-right rhetoric for provoking his murder.
/ IMAGO/Mikolaj Janeczek via Reuters
/
IMAGO/Mikolaj Janeczek via Reuters
A silent protest outside the offices of Poland's state broadcaster commemorated the murder of Gdansk's Mayor Pawel Adamowicz. Many of the mayor's supporters blamed the broadcaster's far-right rhetoric for provoking his murder.

The European Union cut off more than $100 billion in funding to Poland as part of its dispute with the previous government, funds that began to be reinstated once voters elected the new, liberal government committed to doing away with Law and Justice's changes.

On Dec. 20, just days after the Tusk government formally took office, Poland's culture minister fired the leadership of TVP and appointed new management boards.

The final broadcast of the old regime on that day shows a visibly shaken host telling viewers the signal for TVP is going to be abruptly shut off for the first time in Polish history and that the entire leadership had been fired. He then takes his clipboard and walks off-camera before a monotone signal is played.

The broadcaster went off the air for nine straight days as the old and new leadership of the country faced off and as Law and Justice parliament members refused to leave TVP Info's downtown headquarters.

"Never before had any government took to turning off the TV signal without any legal grounds for it," says Pawel Jablonski, a parliamentarian for the Law and Justice party.

"They actually had a problem with the fact that there was one strong media outlet, that was the public TV, that was critical of their political party," says Jablonski. "And right now, they turned it off. They took it over."

The current showdown eventually led President Andrzej Duda, a Law and Justice ally, to veto the budget for the broadcaster, forcing the Tusk government to declare TVP bankrupt and starting a liquidation process. All the while, dozens of reporters at TVP were fired and replaced by an entirely new editorial staff, who took to the airwaves with a revamped news program.

On one evening, the program carried an investigative story revealing that commentators used by TVP under the previous government were paid lucrative sums to parrot ruling party propaganda bullet points. TVP Info's new director, Pluska, says the more he learns about how TVP was run under Law and Justice, the more he's disgusted.

"What they did was ethically and morally unheard of," he says. "In my 30 years as a journalist, I've never seen anyone expect money in return for being a commentator or a guest on a show."

TVP Info's new head of news, Grzegorz Sajor, says this is part of the reason it's important to make swift changes to how TVP operates and reports the news.

"My job is to bring back normalcy, because the last eight years were simply not normal," says Sajor. "We need to bring back a calm demeanor to the news and shed the sensationalism it's had while it was being used for propaganda. We want to present the news of the day as a photograph, not as a painting."

Sajor says the new TVP Info is also broadcasting news unfavorable to Tusk's new government. He points to how the station blew out its schedule to broadcast a live vote of no-confidence in the Tusk government's new culture minister for the changes that were made to TVP. The vote eventually failed.

"If this were back in the Law and Justice days, there's no way TVP would broadcast this type of vote on one of their ministers," Sajor says.

The production team of the TVP Info program <em>19.30</em> directs a live broadcast from a temporary studio on the outskirts of Warsaw while their normal Warsaw studio is being cleared of Law and Justice party lawmakers who refused to leave the building in protest of the new government's changes to TVP.
Rob Schmitz / NPR
/
NPR
The production team of the TVP Info program 19.30 directs a live broadcast from a temporary studio on the outskirts of Warsaw while their normal Warsaw studio is being cleared of Law and Justice party lawmakers who refused to leave the building in protest of the new government's changes to TVP.

A recent survey of voters in Poland shows 56% of voters expressed a positive opinion of how the Tusk government is making changes to the country.

Grzegorz Sokol contributed reporting in Warsaw.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rob Schmitz
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.