The media freedom, especially the pubic media in Poland has been an on-going controversy since 2015. To understand this complex situation, I have sat down to talk to Andrzej Krajewski, a retired journalist, whose list of “former” is an inspiration for any aspiring journalist out there. For example, Andrzej was a correspondent of TVP (Polish state-owned TV) and the Polish Radio in Washington, DC during the crucial early days of Poland’s transformation (1990-1994) and the Gulf War. He is a former editor-in-chief of Poland’s Reader’s Digest and a former vice-president of the Polish Journalists Association (SDP) where he was a director of the Centre of Monitoring of the Freedom of the Press.
Are the public media in Poland free?
Andrzej Krajewski: In short, no. The part of the public media that provides information is a propaganda machine of the Law and Justice party. It is important to make a classification here. The public media in Poland is a massive institution. They are unique for many reasons. For example, the very fact there are strong public media in Poland is not a common feature across the former Communist countries. In Poland the public media remain an important actor. I am happy for that. I talk about the television, of course – TVP1, TVP2, TVP Info, but also the thematic channels of TVP on history, culture and others.
There are many good programs and valuable materials produced in the corners of the TVP empire. Still, when it comes to the information programs I monitor – mainly the Wiadomości (News), which is aired daily at 19:30, the situation is bad.
How did the electoral campaign in the recent local and regional elections (21 October/4 November 2018) look like in the public media?
AK: In the Journalistic Society (Towarzystwo Dziennikarskie) – since I have left the SDP, as it is impossible to remain there [the SDP was taken over by the PiS-leaning journalists back in 2015], we have monitored the Wiadomości for a month in two two-week long sessions. We were comparing the program with the other two main programs of the private stations, Fakty (the Facts) of TVN and Wydarzenia (the Events) of Polsat. During the initial two weeks we were looking at the candidates presented by TVP, whose candidates’ statement were aired… and the result? 73% of the politicians’ statements aired were PiS politicians talk, including the PiS candidates.
And the other 27% to all the other candidates?…
AK: No, there was no plurality. Only the big cities mattered: Warsaw, Łódź, Gdańsk, Kraków, where PiS had its hopes high. The rest didn’t matter. What else came out was that it was an overwhelming holistic propaganda. For example: during a normal monitoring one can easily differentiate between the non-electoral materials and the electoral materials. In a normal monitoring situation there is no need to monitor the non-electoral materials. Here there were no non-electoral materials. Everything was linked to the campaign. Entire program of Wiadomości was subject to the propaganda; there were no neutral messages; every material was advocating to support the government candidates. This is exactly what a propaganda tube means.
For this reason, since we concluded that Wiadomości was a propaganda instrument, in the following two weeks we were comparing the messages of three main programs: Wiadomości of TVP, Fakty of TVN and Wydarzenia of Polsat. Here’s the outcome: Polsat has been largely neutralized. There is an important difference in commenting the political reality between the two private stations, TVN and Polsat. None of them has a holistic approach like the TVP. Polsat prefers to cover the social issues, neutral programs. They are of excellent quality, but they do not cover as much politics as, say TVN, since they know they can’t be overly critical of the government. Still, Polsat was so much better in covering the elections than what the TVP did.
Would you agree with the following: there are three main actors in the evening news and if the Wiadomości of TVP are the propaganda tube of the government, then, on the other hand the PiS could argue the following: it doesn’t matter, since Fakty of TVN are the propaganda tube of the opposition.
AK: I disagree for two reasons. First, you cannot compare directly a private broadcaster with a public one. The public broadcaster has certain legal obligations. Article 21.1 of the Law on Broadcasting precisely says what kind of conditions have to be met by a public broadcaster. It talks about the obligations of a public broadcaster: pluralism, impartiality, balance, independence, high quality and integrity of the message – no one precisely knows what the last element means. Six qualities of a public broadcaster. TVP cannot say we meet three of the six conditions, so we are fine. Those obligations have to be met. Their performance should be controlled by the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT). The KRRiT is not providing the control function since its composition has been compromised. Just this case: Mr Witold Kołodziejski, the KRRiT chairman was a PiS candidate in recent elections. He became a member of the Mazovian regional council. If you asked me, TVP and Wiadomości are not meeting the six conditions of the Broadcasting Law.
The private broadcaster does not have to respect the six conditions. If someone says that TVN represents the opposition is false. TVN is critical of the government, as any media should be. The role of the media is not to make propaganda, but to represent the public. And the electorate should be informed, in a critical way, about what the government does, because the ruling power is controlled by the electorate only once every four years. In the meantime, the electorate should be confronted with critical information so that the electorate can make up its mind about how to vote.
To be critical of the government does not mean that they are representing the opposition.
The role of the media is not to be critical of the opposition but to check on the government. Its independence is not provided by an equal distance between the government and the opposition. There are additional standards for the public broadcaster on top of that. The third actor, Polsat’s Wydarzenia, is self-limiting its coverage of the politics.
AK: Polsat is running away from high politics as much as possible. This is what I can say on the basis on watching the Wydarzenia. There are other people watching the current affairs programs on Polsat – but I don’t watch them as much, so I won’t talk about it.
What I’d like to mention is this: there is a huge difference between how the reality is portraited by the Fakty and Wydarzenia on the one hand, and by Wiadomości on the other hand. The statistics I mentioned earlier – 73% – suggests what kind of opinions are aired. Fakty and Wydarzenia provided balanced opinions from all angles. The Wiadomości independent commentators are not independent. Professors who provide insight come from Catholic universities or marginal private schools and many of them are not independent. They frequently have a history of working with the PiS government by providing input and expertise.
In this context, what do you expect from the next political campaign – to the European Parliament 2019?
AK: More of the same. What was important was the December PiS conference in Jachranka: to stop or suspend the fight to tighten the abortion law and to self-limit of what the party members publish on the Internet.
Wasn’t there a reflection in the PiS corners to soften the message? TVP has suspended a program in which the EU flag was burnt…
AK: Wait a moment. The program was suspended not because of the EU flag, but because the host publicly insulted the PiS leader demanding full ban of abortion and his disappointment with PiS leader in this regard. Jarosław Kaczyński is a great strategic player who knows when to take a step back – he took a step back with the judges a few weeks ago, for example.
But I do not see any softening of the message of PiS or in the TVP. After the local elections they go on with business as usual.
TVP is a machine, which goes on with its own force, rolling on, and it is difficult to moderate the message when you were hammering it before?
AK: Those people will have no problem to report one day a victory for Donald Tusk. They don’t care. It’s water off a duck’s back. I hope they won’t be there – they are absolutely cynical about what they do.
Wiadomości are losing viewership, is that correct?
AK: Yes, there were about 3.5 million people watching the program a few years ago – 2-2.5 million people watch the TVP main news program today. Wiadomości used to be No. 1 news program, today they are either second or third; Polsat’s Wydarzenia are fighting for popularity with TVP; Fakty are regularly the most popular news program today in Poland.
Two million people receive the propaganda information. This is bad, but not the worst news yet. The TVP Info is a 24h news channel available everywhere, while their private competitors are not available everywhere. Those 24/7 channels are quite popular in Poland – each enjoys hundreds of thousands of viewers, sometimes over 1 million. And this channel is hammering propaganda not for 25 minutes of Wiadomości a day – they “inform” 24/7.
This is relevant, because the evening news programs are viewed by the general public, while the 24/7 news programs are watched by the militants – both pro and anti-government.
On the last point, are the European elections important from the perspective of a fight for the free public media in Poland?
AK: Very relevant. I think that the EU and its institutions should be interested in the state of democracy in its member states. There is some interest now with the Article 7 etc. Yet within this panorama of the state of democracy there is the media role, its reliability, independence, balance should be relevant for democracy. The right to information, which is a fundamental right, should be taken seriously. The citizen has a right to be informed. The Polish citizen has a right to be informed and his right is not being realised by the public media, hence the citizen is not informed properly – or, has been informed defectively. This citizen chooses Members of the European Parliament. This voter takes his decisions in limited conditions.