Tusk Confronts Poland’s Hostile Media Machine After Election Win

The next government faces a tough task unpicking the nationalist ruling party’s power grab. The first step is to rebuild the national broadcaster.

(Bloomberg) — It took Poland’s national broadcaster almost 24 hours to suggest that the opposition might form a government after last weekend’s election. When it did, the banner headline on its news channel was still that the ruling party had won.

The admission came after the most caustic campaign in decades, yet the time it took was of little surprise in a country whose state media has been turned into the mouthpiece of the nationalist Law & Justice party. In the runup to Sunday’s vote, the primetime news show ran headlines declaring the opposition would take away money from Poles and leader Donald Tusk would destroy democracy.

Removing the ruling party’s grip on Telewizja Polska SA is now a first vital stepping-stone in restoring democratic institutions the European Union has excoriated Poland for undermining. It also demonstrates the extent of the challenge for Tusk and his future governing coalition to unpick the power grab that runs deep into the state.

During Law & Justice’s eight-year rule, party loyalists have been parachuted into state-owned companies, the central bank and courts, prompting the EU to withhold more than €35 billion ($37 billion) in aid for Poland. Tusk, a former premier and European Council president, has said his top priority is to mend ties with the rest of the bloc and release the money.

As with any power struggle, control of the public broadcaster can mean control of the political narrative. During the campaign, Law & Justice helped depict Tusk as a puppet of Germany with ties to Russia.

State television “clearly promoted the ruling party and its policies, while demonstrating open hostility toward the opposition and casting the most prominent opposition leader as a threat to national security,” the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitored the election, said.  

Late last month, Tusk told a rally in Bydgoszcz, northern Poland, that his party will need “exactly 24 hours” to turn what he described as the ruling party television back into a public broadcaster. That’s easier said than done.

The management of the state television is handpicked by the National Media Council, a body stacked with Law & Justice appointees for a fixed term that ends in 2028.

Any attempts to change the legislation to shorten their tenure is likely to face a veto from President Andrzej Duda, a former Law & Justice lawmaker. One option being considered would be to put the company into administration and replace its management.

Until last year, the state TV was run by Jacek Kurski, a political strategist and self-described “bull terrier” of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Law & Justice’s leader and the eminence grise of Poland. On his watch, the broadcaster was transformed into an “instrument of propaganda” for the government, according to Reporters Without Borders, an advocacy group for independent media.

Law & Justice and its allies were given 80% of political coverage on state TV, according to second-quarter monitoring figures shared by Poland’s national broadcasting council with Media Freedom Rapid Response, a group of European press freedom organizations. The remaining 20% went to the opposition and was “overwhelmingly negative,” MFRR said following its mission to Warsaw in September.

A large part of Polish society gets all its news from the national broadcaster, said Jakub Jaraczewski, an analyst at Democracy Reporting International. Paradoxically, much of its credibility over the years was based on its being out of private control and free of any outside interests, he said.

“Restoring some balance at the public broadcaster is going to be vital and is often being overlooked as an important element of the handover of power in Poland,” said Jaraczewski. “Life is going to be extremely difficult for the next government if it continues to face a broadcaster that continues to be so openly hostile.”

The government also sought to expand its control over the rest of the Polish media landscape, much like Prime Minister Viktor Orban has in Hungary.

In 2020, state-controlled refiner Orlen SA bought the country’s biggest publisher of local newspapers. A year later, proposed changes to the media law effectively attempted to force out the US owner of TVN, the country’s biggest private television. Duda vetoed the plan under pressure from Washington. 

As a counterweight, the owner of one of Hungary’s largest media groups — and an Orban critic —  acquired a stake in the Polish publisher of influential newspaper Rzeczpospolita in recent weeks.   

Law & Justice won the most votes in Sunday’s election, though fell short of a majority in parliament. Tusk’s Civic Platform and its allies have the numbers to form the next government, a result that was clear from the first exit poll and has reverberated across Europe.

On Wednesday, the day after official results confirmed the opposition won parliamentary majority, the state broadcaster’s news channel had changed its headline: “7,640,854 Poles Chose Law & Justice,” it read. 

–With assistance from Maciej Martewicz.

(Updates with Rzeczpospolita purchase in final section.)

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