Analysis: public media takes centre stage

The row over the decision by the management of public radio station “Trojka” has led to a debate over public broadcasting and how it relates to political life. And it has made a song that was at the centre of the controversy one of the best known in Poland.

Several prominent journalists have decided to leave the public radio station “Trojka” following a decision by the management of the station to remove information about the fact that a protest song targeting the leader of the ruling party Jarosław Kaczyński, that had topped a chart contest among the station’s listeners, was removed from the station’s internet portal. Some musicians have also announced that they do not wish their work to be broadcast by the station any longer.

The radio station in question was established in communist times as a safety valve for the authorities to attract a younger audience who wanted to hear modern popular music. It plays rock, pop and jazz. Since the end of communism it has been declining with its market share now at around five percent of the market, well behind major commercial radio stations such as RMF FM and Radio Zet.

The song “Your pain is more important than mine” is by Kazik Staszewski, an artist who has written and performed songs critical of all governments in the past. His latest effort criticizes the leader of the ruling party Jarosław Kaczyński for entering a closed cemetery during lockdown to visit graves, including that of his mother.

“Trojka”’s management claimed that the voting process for establishing positions on the chart had been tampered with, thereby producing a result which did not reflect the actual preferences of the listeners. It accused the DJ of 35 years standing, Marek Niedzwiecki, of having broken the procedures by changing the order of the songs played.

Mr Niedzwiecki has quit the station in protest. He had previously been attacked for having been a secret police informer in communist times and some artists claimed that chart shows on Trojka ,and in other radio stations, are notoriously manipulated by their presenters. However, the fact that the song in question was highly political and that the station’s management chose to pick a fight over the programme over it, has created a political storm with charges of censorship flying around.

Ruling party figures are divided over the issue. The Deputy PM and culture minister Piotr Gliński called the decision taken by the “Trojka” management “appalling”. Deputy PM Jadwiga Emilewicz called it “unacceptable” and the head of President Andrzej Duda’s campaign, Joachim Brudziński MEP, criticized the decision saying that one does not have to agree with the singer but that his freedom to publish must be sacrosanct.

However, PM Mateusz Morawiecki appealed for a sense of proportion. He felt that the storm was getting out of hand and that the song had been an unfair attack on Jarosław Kaczyński for honouring the dead on the 10th anniversary of the Smolensk tragedy. The head of the National Media Council which oversees the work of public media, Krzysztof Czabański, argued on Tuesday that there is no censorship on public media and that it is in the interests of both listeners and musicians that charts are compiled in a transparent manner.

On Tuesday morning the leader of the main opposition Civic Platform (PO) Borys Budka refused to answer questions on the show’s daily interview and simply made a statement denouncing ‘censorship’ in public media before leaving. On Monday the PO’s new candidate for President, Warsaw’s mayor Rafał Trzaskowski went further in his criticism of pubic media as a whole, when he called for the liquidation of state TVP and its replacement with new public media that would not include its TVP’s news channel “TVP Info” or its news and current affairs programming.

People who lived in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones

However, commentators who have a long memory will point to the fact that when the PO was in power it was willing to see political interventions in both public and commercial media. Nor did it do much to progress reforms in the public media or to protect freedoms of journalists.

When the newspaper “Rzeczpospolita” published an article alleging that TNT had been found in the wreckage of the Smolensk plane, it emerged that Paweł Graś , a minister close to the then PM Donald Tusk met the owner of the paper during the night before the publication. Soon after the editor and several journalists were dismissed from the paper.

The same Mr Graś was also recorded during the illicit recordings affair, as having told a Polish oligarch Jan Kulczyk that he tried to get the German government to intervene to dismiss an editor of the tabloid “Fakt”, as the Polish government was unhappy with the coverage it was getting from the paper. The editor of that paper was later replaced.

The weekly “Wprost” was visited by a swarm of state Internal Security Agency(ABW) officers after it published transcripts of illicit recordings made in fashionable Warsaw restaurants involving conversations between top politicians and business figures. The officers tried to seize computers from the “Wprost” offices.

Paweł Kukiz, a rock musician who is now an MP and an ally of the opposition Polish People’s Party (PSL), complained in 2014 that his songs were not broadcast by radio “Trojka”; songs which were critical of establishment figures.

The head of programming of commercial station TVN admitted that the station’s decision to drop a show of the popular satirical artist Szymon Majewski was political. He said that viewers of the programme disliked criticism of the then ruling PO. He did not reveal any research to back his claims.

The PO had promised to legislate to make public media more independent of the political process. There were proposals to have public broadcasters overseen by academics rather than politicians. These went nowhere as politicians did not want to have their influence reduced.

FInally , the long standing article 212 of the penal code, which makes slander a criminal offence, has remained in place throughout the lifetime of all governments, despite the fact that it originates from communist times. It means that a journalist can go to prison and have a criminal record for critical remarks he or she makes, as well as being fined.

Media in times of high political polarisation

Political polarisation in the Polish media did not begin in 2015. It dates back to the first spell in office of the current ruling party Law and Justice (PiS). It was back in 2006 that TVN actually worked with a politician to set up a sting operation in which an illicit recording was made of a political negotiation between a representative of the ruling party and an MP from another political grouping. In this way journalists moved from being observers and analysts to active participants in the political process.

Following its election victory in 2015, PiS moved quickly to make changes in both public TV and radio. For its eight years in opposition it felt it had been under the cosh form much of the media, both commercial and public, and wanted to redress the balance.

In reality Poland’s media market today is highly pluralistic in terms of choice for viewers, listeners and readers. In this respect it is far more similar to the US rather than the British media mode. In Britain the electronic media are more tightly regulated in terms of attempting to ensure political balance, even though many argue that they are dominated by liberal and leftist points of view. In the US, broadcast media have since the 80s been freed of constraints and are now highly pluralistic with both conservative and liberal points of view represented by different outlets.

Critics of Poland’s public media point to the fact that since it is publicly funded, it should present a balanced point of view. They also point to the fact that legislation obliges them to inform and educate the public in an impartial manner. But at the same time,unlike in the UK, the legislation does not oblige the commercial sector to any balance or objectivity. Poland also has a highly liberal, compared to France or Germany, attitude to foreign ownership of its media, with a major commercial TV operation, a major internet portal and several newspapers in foreign hands.

The current government has promised legislation on public media and a new system for its funding. Public media suffer from the fact that payment of the license fee for TV and radio is de facto voluntary, and income from it has been declining ever since Donald Tusk, as PM, in a fit of pique at some unfavourable coverage, told people they were not obliged to pay. But so far no major reform has been implemented, with short-falls in public media budgets being topped up by compensation payments to make up for the fact that successive groups of people such as the elderly are being exempted from the license fee.

The fact that public media are at the mercy of being funded essentially from the public purse, makes it more susceptible to political pressures. But these have been there for the commercial sector too, though at least it is not expected to be balanced or objective.