President Duda accused Germans of interfering in election

Polish President Andrzej Duda has accused Germans of interfering in the ongoing presidential election. He cited the campaign by the tabloid “Fakt” against his decision to lift a restraining order against a sex offender as evidence.

At Friday’s rally in Bolesławiec President Duda attacked the “Fakt” tabloid for its highly critical front page on the pardon which the President issued. He called the publication a “slanderous attack” and added: “Germans wants to choose who is to be President in Poland? That is shameful” .

The President also attacked “Die Welt” for its Warsaw correspondent’s claim that Rafał Trzaskowski would be a better President from a German point of view because he opposes Poland attempting to extract war reparations from Germany. He linked this to the dispute with “Fakt” which he called another “front in the German attack” on him. The President accused the paper of not only attacking him but the family which he had helped.

The pardon

In March of this year President Duda granted a pardon lifting a restraining order on petition of the victim. The sexual offence, for which the perpetrator had been convicted and for which he served his prison sentence, had occurred within the family.The perpetrator still figures in the government’s own sex-offenders register.

Over a decade ago, the father began struggling with alcoholism. When drunk, he became violent towards his partner and began to abuse their daughter. He was reported to the police, convicted, spent some years in prison and went through therapy.

The family appealed to the President to lift the restraining order as it was interfering in their lives. The mother and daughter started repeatedly filing appeals for a pardon and the courts have been processing them since 2018. They, the mother and daughter argued that the restraining order was no longer a means of protection, but rather a form of repression as the victim (now an adult) and the perpetrator currently live in one house anyway and both the mother and daughter are financially dependent on him.

A tabloid attacks

The tabloid “Fakt” on Friday described in graphic detail the offences committed by the individual on whom the President lifted the restraining order. The article was preceded by a front page spread with the headline “He held the daughter down, hit her face and put his hand between her legs”, a large photograph of President Duda and at the bottom of the page the question “Mr President, how could you pardon such an individual”.

Adam Bielan MEP, the spokesman for President Duda’s campaign complained to the German ambassador about the “Fakt” coverage and the head of the President’s campaign Joachim Brudziński MEP called the paper a “German rag”. The President himself was outraged and accused the paper of indulging in a “dirty campaign”. He enquired whether “ German owned Axel Springer wants to impact on the election in Poland”.

The newspaper itself issued a statement in which it stated that “Fakt is the work of Polish journalists and editors with considerable experience in Poland's media market” and that it was owned by a Swiss-German company with American capital.

Fakt is no stranger to controversy

This is not the first time “Fakt” coverage has caused a stir. When a former Prime Minister’s son hanged himself the paper ran a headline “The father chose politics, the son chose the rope”. The then editor of the paper was forced to resign over the storm that followed.

During the tape-gate scandal when several ministers form the previous Civic Platform government were illicitly taped it emerged that Donald Tusk’s right-hand man Paweł Graś had tried to get the German government to intervene in order to change the editorial policy of the paper which the then government considered to be hostile to it. Mr Graś , in a conversation with the now deceased business mogul Jan Kulczyk asked Mr Kulczyk to use his good offices to intervene with Axel Springer in order to do something about an editor he accused of being in favour of the then opposition Law and Justice (PiS). The editor was later changed by the paper

. Foreign ownership and de-concentration of media ownership issue

Several newspapers and magazines as well as a major TV network are owned by foreign capital. This has been criticized by the right of the Polish political spectrum as a possible lever that other governments and hostile business interests could have over Poland.

A left wing administration between 2001 and 2005 attempted to change the laws governing media ownership to reduce the concentration of media ownership. That piece of legislation was however discredited when it turned out that negotiations over its contents had become embroiled in a major scandal when a well-known film producer was taped soliciting an illicit payment for helping the owners of “Gazeta Wyborcza” purchase, the Polish owned as it happens, TV network Polsat.

The present PiS administration has been considering introducing measures to deconcentrate ownership of the media. Foreign owned media such as the TVN network and publications such as “Fakt” and “Newsweek Polska” have been highly critical of the present government and sympathetic towards the main opposition PO. The opposition accused the ruling party of trying to take over the media via the purchase of media outlets by state companies.

Media pluralism

However, no such purchases have taken place as yet. The US ambassador Georgette Mosbacher stepped in firmly to defend the Discovery owned TVN network against government criticism.

The Polish public media (TV and radio) have been heavily criticized for being pro-government. However, this means that there is a right-left balance between competing media in Poland. TVP is widely regarded as being pro-government, TVN anti-government, with Polsat taking a neutral stance.

This was not always the case. Back in the time of the previous PO government all significant electronic media were sympathetic to the then ruling party. The right found sympathy and understanding in a minority of newspapers and magazines.

Tensions with Germany

Poland’s relationship with its western neighbour has been strained in the last few years. The present government has worked with the US against German energy interests by attempting to stop the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. Ruling party politicians have argued for Poland filing for war reparations against Germany. And Poland has been at odds with Germany over the EC’s compulsory relocation of refugees scheme which Poland refused to implement and over the EC’s actions against Poland over rule of law compliance.

The two countries are major trading partners with Germany having major business interests in Poland. However the present Polish government sees the US as its major security and energy partner. The current PiS government also opposes Franco-German domination of the EU and is attempting to build a Polish sphere of influence via the Visegrad Four and the Three Seas Initiative.

The German government will not become involved in this dispute as it will not want to interfere with actions by German companies in such a sensitive sphere as the media. However, it may reflect over whether German ownership of media outlets in Poland is in that country’s national interests. The signal the current Polish administration is sending on that issue is clear.