Put mildly, Polish public service media is considered conservative, but in the latest scandal involving veteran broadcasters and a controversial song, the reputation of a long established national radio station could have long-term ramifications for those in charge of state broadcasting.
There is absolutely no argument that with a population of thirty-eight million people you will get many different perspectives on Polish society. Mix that with a nation that is considered by many the most Catholic in Europe, much of those perspectives will be of a conservative nature. Agendas run back and forth depending on the current mindset of the people, so it’s no surprise that Poland is experiencing a period of social push back, especially after a decade of liberal progress under the various governments that led the country in the early 2000s. European recession and the threat of mass immigration has stifled the liberal progress in Poland.
Capitalising on traditional mindsets
There has always been a considerably large conservative element which has worked hand in hand with the Catholic church. Poland didn’t largely experience revelations of scandals similar to those that have rocked the Catholic faith around the world over the last twenty years, and as such, the church has remained a strong influence on society. Along with safeguarding its presence in the older generations, the church has also managed to get a foothold within youth demographics. The result was an environment that was ripe for extortion by the then Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law & Justice, PiS) political party in 2015. They came to power after a number of years in opposition to the coalition led by Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform, PO). Its leader Jarosław Kaczyński engaged the Polish electorate under an outright populist manifesto, promising to bring back traditional values and putting an end to the liberal agenda that was adopted by the outgoing administration. He arrived in government with a vast majority towards the end of 2015.
Since then, PiS has remained true to form – constantly attempting to implement restrictions on abortion since 2016, successfully disbanding the Council for the Prevention of Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Intolerance and opposing any quota system for mass relocation of immigrants that has been proposed by the European Commission to address the ongoing European migrant crisis.
The result is that in 2020, Poland has had five years of PiS rule which in many minds, has pushed the country towards a far right nationalist state, encouraged and influenced by Catholic fundamentalism.
Like any right-wing administration, the fight to control the media in Poland has not escaped action by its leadership. Many long established media outlets are experiencing attacks against their publications due to their editorials exposing corruption and dubious activities of the Polish political influencers. To add to the problem, there is the issue of control over state broadcaster, TVP, which has brought to the fore the lack of unbiased journalism and reporting, and effectively made TVP the voice of the government. Some would argue that this is nothing new – indeed, TVP has historically leaned towards those in power, but the scale of influence over the last five years is seen by many as unprecedented. This is not just limited to party statements. There have been numerous instances of TVP staff, in particular current affairs journalists, who have quit the broadcaster or indeed, been forced out as a result of their opposition to the current administration. Journalists such as Hanna Lis, Jarosław Kulczycki, Justyna Dobrosz-Oracz have all departed under controversy in an effort to curb the inside opposition to the Kaczyński administration.
The Trójka incident
In the latest controversy, long established public service radio station Trójka (Program 3), of state broadcaster, Polish Radio, has come under fire after its veteran presenter Marek Niedźwiecki quit following an alleged and controversial decision by the radio station management to boycott a track by veteran musician Kazik Staszewski. The track, “Your pain is better than mine”, was a direct criticism of visits by Kaczyński to his brother’s, President Lech Kaczyński’s, grave, despite the fact that all cemeteries were closed to the public due to the current Covid-19 restrictions. Niedźwiecki was the host of a weekly chart rundown on his programme every Friday evening and following the result last week that gave top spot to Staszewski’s track, the station management allegedly pulled the list and reported it as unavailable. In a statement issued by its Director-in-Chief, Tomasz Kowalczewski, they claimed that manual manipulation took place and that “Our radio IT specialists have analysed the logins of the person responsible for the order of songs in the electronic version of the list. According to listeners, Kazik should be in fourth place”.
On Saturday late evening Agnieszka Kamińska, who is the president of Polish Radio gave an interview with press agency, Informacyjna Agencja Radiowa, in which she stated that the incident would be investigated “whether it was as a result of an IT error, or was it interference from outside”. Kamińska also claimed that any accusations of censorship were an act of “lying and unfair”. She went on to say that immediate action was taken to uncover the truth and make it public in an effort to show that voting is conducted fairly.
Nevertheless, internal journalist, Bartosz Gil, was suspended amid revelations that Tomasz Kowalczewski wanted Gil and some of the station’s employees to sign a document confirming that Kazik’s song adjudged to be in first place by mistake and that the best practice was to cancel the listing. Bartosz’s wife Mahdieh Gholami took to Facebook claiming that “[c]ertainly Bartek and the others will not sign such a stupid letter. And now what !!! My husband was suspended from work on the radio”.
As a result of the controversy, Marek Niedźwiecki decided to quit, with his colleague, composer Zbigniew Preisner, also taking to Facebook and making the following statement: “Marek Niedźwiecki is another person who left Trójka today. Our Trójka no longer exist. We cannot be enslaved by this Bolshevik policy, we must defend our freedom, otherwise our mind will be enslaved”.
Regardless of the outcome of any enquiry, the reputation of Polish state broadcasting has been dealt a blow that many see as another nail in the coffin of free press and media. The question is what will happen when PiS eventually exits government – and they will sooner or later – leaving the likes of Trójka editor-in-chief, Tomasz Kowalczewski having to justify his actions to a new and inquisitive administration.
There is no issue with a state adopting conservative values as per the mandate of the majority of the people, but when it begins to encroach on fundamental freedoms such as free and impartial media, then there is a problem that will manifest itself into dire proportions should it not be stopped.
A reckoning lies in wait for those who actively support the state agenda against the values of journalism, but the question is, who will be around to take up the mantle and bring back the balanced media that so many Poles desire.
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