Polish state TVP Info channel off air as Tusk reforms kick in

Polish state TV channel TVP Info has been taken off air after Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s new government moved to depoliticise public media.

Parliament in Warsaw backed a resolution on Tuesday night calling for independence, objectivity and pluralism in public TV and radio.

The new culture minister has dismissed the heads of TVP and Polish Radio.

MPs from the Law and Justice (PiS) party who lost power in October reacted by staging a sit-in at state TV HQ.

The ex-PiS prime minister condemned the Tusk government’s “illegal actions”, and political ally President Andrzej Duda accused it of “violating constitutional principles and the law”.

State media is an important tool in Poland. About a third of people rely solely on it for their news, having no access to private broadcasters.

In recent years, TVP’s main evening news broadcasts, and TVP Info, became a propaganda machine for the PiS government, and the new coalition, led by pro-EU Prime Minister Donald Tusk, had promised voters to turn state media into a platform for “reliable information”.

PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski joined the protest at TVP headquarters in Warsaw all night, leaving the building after 06:00 local time (05:00 GMT).

He returned, along with dozens of other PiS MPs on Wednesday after TVP’s 24-hour news channel was taken off air. TVP Info continued to broadcast on YouTube, showing video of a TV screen airing the output, until it also stopped.

On Tuesday night, TVP Info, the 24-hour news service, symbolically changed its headline strap from red to black.

Then on Wednesday the new minister of culture, Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz, dismissed the heads of state TV and radio as well as state news agency PAP.

New management boards were also appointed. and then the news channel went off air altogether. Former Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki accused the new government of violating its “supposed care for the rule of law… at every step”.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk
Image caption,Prime Minister Donald Tusk has moved quickly to dismiss appointees of the previous government from state bodies

The Tusk-led coalition was eventually sworn in a week ago, after winning October elections on a promise to overturn years of PiS reforms.

The former president of the European Council has moved quickly to dismiss PiS appointees from government bodies. On Tuesday he appointed new heads of state security, intelligence and anti-corruption offices. He described the new chiefs, including two women, as “very good, loyal and disciplined”.

By law, state media should not serve the political interests of any one party. In practice, it is normally partial to whichever government is in power.

After taking office in 2015, PiS went much further than any previous government in controlling TVP’s narrative.

It changed Poland’s media law and set up a rival media regulator to allow it to sack management boards and pack the public media with journalists sympathetic to its policies.

While it was doing this, it enacted legislation to increase its political control over the judiciary and the civil service. It put its own people in charge of the security services and state-controlled companies.

Many Poles old enough to remember the crude propaganda of the communist-era authorities in the 1970s and ’80s said TVP’s methods were even worse.

PiS set out to “repolonise” Polish media and used the country’s state-controlled energy company Orlen to buy Poland’s largest regional media outlet, the German-owned Polska Press, taking political control of its newspapers and websites.

It also passed legislation to limit foreign ownership of the media, leading Washington to protest the bill was aimed at the US-owned TVN. The protest caused President Andrzej Duda to veto the bill.

In response to PiS’s actions, privately owned newspapers and broadcasters, such as TVN 24 news, became markedly more critical of the PiS-led government.

Under the previous government, Poland dropped from 18th to 57th place in the World Press Freedom Index.

So how can its former leader, Mr Kaczynski, say the protest is defending democracy and media pluralism?

In his definition, media pluralism will be reduced by PiS losing control over TVP. For him, TVP acts as a conservative bulwark against the private broadcasters supporting the new coalition government.

Poland’s media regulator, the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT), which has also been politicised by PiS, said the dismissals were illegal. “Turning off the television signal and websites of TVP Info is an act of lawlessness and recalls the worst times of martial law,” said chairman Maciej Swirski.

PiS said the parliamentary resolution did not give the government the power to sack the management boards. But the culture minister said the ministry had ownership rights over the state companies and did have the authority.

Mr Tusk has learned from PiS’s eight years in power. When he was first elected prime minister in 2007, he left a PiS appointee, Mariusz Kaminski, in his post as head of the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau until 2009.

Mr Kaminski served as interior minister under the recently departed PiS-led government.

On Wednesday he was handed a two-year jail sentence for abuse of power for his part in an anti-corruption sting dating back to 2007, for which President Duda had already pardoned him in 2015.

The Tusk government may face resistance to http://ujiemisiapel.com/ its planned changes from the president, who has the power to veto legislation.

Mr Duda took to social media on Wednesday evening to call on the prime minister and his cabinet to “respect the Polish legal order”. He had already written to the parliamentary speaker warning that any changes to state media must be carried out in accordance with the law.

Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita reported that the coalition government did not plan a wide-ranging purge of TVP personnel, saying up to 60 employees who violated journalistic standards would lose their jobs. The newspaper said the government planned to make the changes by Christmas.

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