Taking the PiS? Poland’s EU voting rights in peril amid media, judiciary crackdown

Anti-government protest in Poznan, Poland © Agencja Gazeta
Authoritarian moves by Poland’s new conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party government which allegedly encroach on democracy are to be reviewed by the European Commission in a development that may lead to suspending Warsaw’s voting rights.

The powerful European Commission announced Sunday that it would review the situation in Poland at a January 13 meeting. It comes in response to Warsaw’s Constitutional Court reform that reduced its efficiency and an imminent media reform, which would give the government control over public broadcasters.

“Many reasons exist for us to activate the ‘Rule of Law mechanism’ and for us to place Warsaw under monitoring,” Günther Oettinger, European Commissioner for the digital economy and society, said in an interview with the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Sunday.

The mechanism was established in March 2014 to deal with systemic threats to core EU values posed by member states. The procedure requires that the Commission collects and accesses information on the situation, consults with the country suspected of the violation, and ultimately votes on stripping the offending party of some of its rights under the Treaty of the European Union, including the right to vote.

So far the mechanism was never fully invoked and the Commission said it was "too early to speculate about the possible next stages" in Poland’s case.

Media swipe

The new media law, which was rushed through Poland’s two-chamber parliament last week, is now waiting only for the signature of President Andrzej Duda to be enacted. Duda is a close ally of the Law and Justice (PiS) party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, which dominates the legislature after a landslide victory in October.

Under the new law, the treasury minister will have the power to appoint and sack senior figures in public radio and television, as opposed to them being appointed through a contest by the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT), as per previous rules.

Several key figures in the Polish media resigned in a gesture of protest, saying they would be laid off if the new law is passed. Those include heads of three TV channels of the Polish public broadcaster TVP and the head of its human resources department.

"No one can force Poland to shut its mouth. No one can force me to shut my mouth," Tomazs Lis, one of Poland's most recognized journalists, commented on his resignation to Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper.

The media reform was condemned by journalist organizations, including Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and the Association of European Journalists (AEJ). AEJ said it would “lead to a systematic editorial bias in the content of... broadcasts in favor of the present government."

The Law and Justice party dismissed the criticism, saying it only reverses what Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski called 25 years of “liberal indoctrination” by the country’s media.

Court crippled

Earlier the Polish government enacted a reform of the Constitutional Court, which made it harder to pass rulings, demanding a quorum of 13 judges out of 15 to decide on the most contentious cases, up from nine. The judges now need a two-thirds majority, as opposed to simple majority under the old rules. And they must wait for several months after receiving a request before passing a verdict can be possible.

The conservative drift in Poland, which PiS says reflects the nation’s desire to maintain its Catholic identity and not be watered down by EU’s liberal influence, has triggered mass protest in the country. Thousands took to the streets to oppose what they see as a threat to political freedoms posed by the government.