Polish public TV under fire from courts and Council of Europe

TVP has been criticised by members of the Council of Europe for pro-government bias and has lost a dubious case in court brought by an opposition MP.

Polish Television (TVP) is a public broadcasting company. Last week it held a debate between all the parties during which Borys Budka, one of the opposition Civic Coalition’s (KO) top officials showed a receipt from a pharmacy which showed that a prescription drug used by transplant patients cost around EUR 250 per packet. He called it the “receipt of shame” for the current government.

However, it emerged that the drug in question (Valcyte) was available under a refund scheme for less than EUR 1 per packet for patients who qualified for the treatment according to National Health Fund regulations. The TVP Info news channel’s portal accused Mr Budka of quoting a deliberately misleading price of the drug in question.

Borys Budka took offence at being accused of being a liar and took the matter to court, arguing that his reputation and public trust had been undermined by TVP. Mr Budka in court asserted that he never said that the drug shown on the receipt wasn’t covered by National Health Fund refunding, pointing out that this refunding was limited to a certain time period and categories of patients. The court agreed with his literal interpretation and has ruled that TVP should apologise.

Council of Europe parliamentarians attack TVP

A number of members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe have issued a declaration accusing TVP of engaging in government propaganda ahead of the Parliamentary elections due on October 13. According to the members of the Assembly, this is a violation “of Council of Europe principle and damaging the reputation of Poland as a democratic member of the Council of Europe.”

In another part of the declaration, the Assembly members demand that the Polish government take action. “We demand that the Polish authorities ensure that Polish public media perform their functions and deliver objective information on the coming election.” This, they remind, is Poland’s obligation in line with the Council of Europe recommendations on the freedom of the press being one of the conditions for the holding of free elections.

Comment:

The interpretations of untruths by the court and of media freedom by members of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly are somewhat narrow. The court seems to believe that truth or the lack of it is purely a matter of literal fact, and the Council of Europe Parliamentarians think that media freedom can be confined to the output of public media.

If a politician appears in an election programme and tries to give the impression that prescription drugs for patients are at astronomical price levels and uses a drug which is available with virtual refund of costs it is not too surprising that a journalist will take issue with him for that. The politician was manipulating the truth and the journalist did his duty in pointing that out.

Parliamentarians from the Council of Europe’s declaration is manipulative in terms of its interpretation of both the history and actual media freedom in Poland. The history of public media in Poland shows that it has always been under the influence of politicians of one or more of the ruling parties.

There was even a period in the past when one party held influence over both public and commercial media. Why was there no concern of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentarians over freedom and pluralism in those times.

The situation in the Polish electronic and print media is today highly pluralistic. The fact that public media today tends to be sympathetic to the ruling party offsets the fact that one of the main commercial TV networks is highly hostile to the government and sympathetic to the main opposition parties and that many radio stations and newspapers and magazines are also staunch opponents of the government and openly supportive of the opposition.

The classic example of that is the fact that “Gazeta Wyborcza” an influential liberal-leaning paper has decided to distribute one million free copies of its pre-election edition. That paper has in the past printed opposition calls for demonstrations.

It is not unlikely that should the ruling party win a majority in Parliament, and all the polls suggest that this will happen, there will be those at home and abroad who will use criticism of the public media as evidence that the elections were not free or fair.

But the most absurd part of the declaration from the Council of Europe’s Parliamentarians comes in their demands that the government take action to stop public media being biased towards it. Government control in favour of objectivity? You couldn’t make it up.

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