By Anna Koper and Justyna Pawlak
WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland’s public broadcaster TVP this month accused the government’s predecessors of having left Poles to fend for themselves during an economic crisis and said their current election programme offered nothing but “contempt and ridicule”.
In TVP’s main evening news bulletin, aired two weeks before a tightly fought national election on Oct. 15, a voiceover then praised the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party for offering “unprecedented support” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Media analysts and free speech activists say the difference in tone during that Oct. 1 broadcast is a typical example of how TVP operates – not as the neutral news provider its charter says it should be but as a government mouthpiece.
“This coverage by TVP creates unfair conditions for opposition parties in the election campaign and hence damages Polish citizens’ right to information,” said Pavol Szalai from the non-profit Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
In global media freedom rankings, RSF now has Poland in 57th place, down sharply from 18th in 2015, the year that PiS swept to power.
“Public media are paid for with our taxes in order to give citizens access to fair information. And that’s particularly important at… election time,” said Joanna Krawczyk from the German Marshall Fund, a think-tank.
“What I saw last night was… aimed at discrediting the opposition,” she said, referring to TVP’s Oct. 1 bulletin.
PiS, socially conservative but left-leaning on the economy, is seeking an unprecedented third term on Sunday amid accusations that it has subverted democratic standards and put Poland on a more authoritarian path.
Surveys show it winning the election but falling short of a parliamentary majority due to discontent over the cost of living, as well as concerns over women’s and minority rights and Poland’s future place in the European Union.
Data shows PiS politicians receiving more access to TVP than opposition candidates. During the second quarter of 2023, PiS officials were shown during over 250 hours of news coverage while the main opposition party, Civic Coalition (KO) had access to 10 hours, according to TVP data.
Asked about such imbalance, a spokesperson for Poland’s media regulator KRRiT said in a statement to Reuters: “It should be borne in mind that public media are obliged to present the position of the government and the president on issues important to the country.”
In a separate statement addressing accusations of bias, TVP said it was subject to KRRiT’s regulatory supervision and was guided by “the principle of pluralism”, inviting guests with different views to take part in its programmes.
A PiS lawmaker responsible for media issues declined to comment for this article. A Reuters e-mail to the government was answered by the culture ministry, which said public administration officials have no influence over TVP programming.
PiS says private media outlets such as Warner Bros’ TVN often distort public debate by representing foreign interests. TVN, which receives no public funds, denies this charge and says it stands up for press freedoms.
A CBOS survey conducted in 2021 showed more than three quarters of Poles thought TVP’s programmes favoured the ruling party and the government, up from 30% in 2012.
This perceived bias in public broadcasting has exacerbated political divisions in Polish society.
Grzegorz Lewandowski, a 50 year-old construction worker from Sochaczew, a town near Warsaw, said his mother watches the news on TVP while his father prefers private broadcasters.
“When he watches TVN, my mother leaves for the kitchen,” he said. “When she watches TVP, he goes to the kitchen.”
TVP’s news tickers are a particular source of contention.
When PiS announced in May plans to raise its flagship child benefit programme, some opposition lawmakers said the hike should be limited to working parents.
In response, TVP ran a news ticker saying: “PiS has a programme, the opposition has convulsions”.
PiS casts Sunday’s election as a choice between national security, which it says is under threat from migration, and liberal rule it says endangers Poles’ economic well-being.
TVP’s Oct. 1 evening news bulletin featured a segment on what it called Europe’s “fear of a flood of illegal migration”, with footage of people scrambling into a small boat, screaming on a foggy sea, and a shot of dozens of Black men on a hill.
It mentioned a major opposition rally attended by hundreds of thousands of people in central Warsaw only in the 19th minute of its bulletin, and described the event as “10 times smaller than expected”.
By contrast, the rally – billed by KO leader and former prime minister Donald Tusk as a watershed moment for the anti-PiS opposition – was the leading item on TVN’s news programme.
The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom watchdog sent a mission last month to examine the situation in Poland ahead of the election and its findings were bleak.
“The overwhelming majority of commentators met by the mission expressed deep concern that the country was at a crossroads and that four more years of the current policy would… push Poland down the path to emulating the media environment in Hungary, Turkey, or Russia.”
(Editing by Alan Charlish and Gareth Jones)