EU slams Poland for media 'crackdown' after new law gives state more control

© Przemek Wierzchowski / Agencja Gazeta
The EU, European journalists organizations and the OSCE media rep have slammed Poland’s new media law, which gives government more control over public TV and radio and the right to appoint officials to top broadcast posts “to shield national interests.”

In another step by the newly-elected Law and Justice party (PiS) government to gain a firmer grip on state institutions, a “national media” law was passed in Warsaw on Wednesday.

The new law will come into effect immediately after President Andrzej Duda signs it. The bill would give the powers to the treasury minister to replace current senior public broadcasting officials at Polskie Radio and Telewizja Polska (TVP) with any other candidates.

It also terminates the terms of the current management of the national broadcasters.

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“The public media are ignoring their mission towards the nation,” Elzbieta Kruk, a PiS MP, said in parliament. “Instead of creating a media shield for the Polish national interest, journalists often sympathize with negative opinions about Poland.”

An OSCE media freedom representative spoke out, criticizing Poland’s moves to control its public broadcaster and asking Poland to withdraw the new law.

“It is vital that public service broadcasters are guarded against any attempts of political or commercial influence. I fear the hastily introduced changes will endanger the basic conditions of independence, objectivity and impartiality of public service broadcasters,” OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic said.

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Currently, all candidates are selected by the National Broadcasting Council.

“I have noted the sharp criticism from civil society to these plans, including from the Helsinki Foundation and, most recently, in a joint statement from European Federation of Journalists, the European Broadcasting Union, the Association of European Journalists and Reporters Without Borders,” Mijatovic said. “I urge the Polish government to withdraw the proposal.”

However, the PiS has an absolute majority in parliament and all of its newly-proposed laws have been passed fairly quickly.

The latest PiS moves have sparked international criticism. First Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans sent a letter to Poland’s foreign and justice ministers Wednesday, arguing that media freedom is a key element in the EU.

Groups such as Reporters Without Borders and the Association of European Journalists have also joined the debate, criticizing the Polish government.

The new media law also comes as the ruling Law and Justice party has moved to curb the powers of the Constitutional Court to challenge government decisions.

Earlier this week, Polish President Duda signed into law a controversial amendment to the legislation of the Constitutional Court. Opposition members have insisted that the new legislation could paralyze Poland’s top judicial body and encroach on the separation of powers.

The amendment was drafted by the PiS party. It requires the 15-member Constitutional Court to pass most of its rulings with two-thirds of votes rather than the current simple majority, and sets a minimal quorum at 13 judges, as opposed to the nine needed previously.

Under the new ruling, the body would find it difficult to rule on controversial issues, according to critics, allowing the majority in the legislature much more leverage in running the country.

The bill has caused public outrage with thousands of people joining demonstrations in cities across Poland a week ago to protest against the new law.

The legislation was also opposed by senior EU officials, with European Parliament chairman Martin Schulz comparing the developments in Poland to a "coup d'etat” and Luxembourg's Foreign Minister saying developments in Poland are “reminiscent of the course taken by dictatorial regimes."