A recent report by Poland’s Society of Journalists and the Batory Foundation finds that public media in Poland do not fulfil their role as a source of independent and balanced news, but rather function as a propaganda tool for the government.

“We saw that the government was using public service media, which is under its control, to support its own programme and its own candidates in the election”, Krzysztof Bobiński, who is a board member for the Society of Journalists, explained in an interview with the International Press Institute (IPI).

The report observes that Wiadomości, the main news programme on Poland’s public broadcasting station TVP, demonstrates notable bias in favour of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS). The bias manifests in both proportionally higher screen time for members of PiS and overwhelmingly positive coverage of the party and its interests. In addition to favourable coverage of the ruling party, the programme often casts opposition politicians and their supporters in a negative light. At times it neglects to cover the opposition at all and omits stories that may reflect poorly on PiS.

TVP receives about 28 percent of viewing share, the highest among Polish broadcasters, and Wiadomości averages 2.4 million viewers daily. However, according to a poll conducted earlier this year, Wiadomości ranked very low in public trust, Andrzej Krajewski, the author of the report, said in an interview.

Public broadcasters should be independent, giving fair and balanced coverage to all political parties. But according to the report, Wiadomości has neglected to live up to that standard. The report concludes that Wiadomości has “failed to observe the conditions of article 21.1 of Poland’s law on radio and TV, which requires public service television to be ‘pluralistic, unbiased and independent’.”

“This is public media we are all paying for, it’s our public media, and they’re breaking the law”, Bobiński commented. “They’re not only breaking the law because they’re biased, but also they’re breaking the law because they’re [PiS] using this media as part of their election campaign, and that should be in their election campaign expenses. Really, they are using our money to bamboozle us.”

In a statement accompanying the report, the Society of Journalists, an independent group affiliated with the European Federation of Journalists, noted that in 2019 TVP received a one billion złoty (250 million euro) subsidy from the government on top of its advertising and license fee income. From 2016 TVP budget subsidies were more than two billion złoty (500 million euro).

Poland’s media regulator, the National Council for Radio and Television (KRRiT), is legally obligated to monitor media activity and ensure Poland’s public broadcast laws are implemented. However, when the Council was approached with complaints about TVP’s failure to comply with impartiality laws, it failed to take action, Bobiński said. This inaction by the KRRiT is part of what spurred the media monitoring behind the report.

“At that point, what does a citizen do? You either don’t do anything or you try to fill the gap that’s been left by a state institution, which is mandated by the constitution to do this work”, Bobiński said.

The report examined Wiadomości coverage from May 10 to 23, the period leading up to the 2019 European Union parliamentary elections. During this time, two-thirds of the news items reported by Wiadomości were election-related. All but one of the stories covering PiS were positive, and the outlier was neutral. The opposition European Coalition was covered negatively in all 33 news items in which it appeared. Liberal and left-wing parties contesting the election were not mentioned at all. The report also notes that Wiadomości “did not mention climate change, a key issue in many other member states.”

Shortly after coming to power in the fall of 2015, PiS made moves to disrupt and reform Polish public media. Parliament passed a law that terminated the contracts of the heads of Poland’s public television and radio broadcasters. The treasury minister was given the power to hire and fire broadcasting directors, a matter that was previously decided by a media supervisory committee. In early 2016, Jacek Kurski, a former PiS member of the European Parliament, was appointed director of TVP, and he remains in this role today.

TVP has not been PiS’s only target. Recently PiS officials announced plans to “re-polonize” media in Poland if they maintain the majority in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Bringing private media in Poland under Polish ownership has been part of PiS’s agenda for several years, though legally it would be difficult to force out non-Polish media companies that are from within the EU, Krajewski explained.

However, these companies could be bought out by Polish enterprises. Foreign-owned broadcasters are some of the most critical in the Polish media landscape, and the threat of their capture by the government presents a serious risk to plurality in Polish news

PiS’s capture of Polish public media poses ominous repercussions not only for Poland but for the European Union as well. In its statement, the Society of Journalists expressed concern that the “transformation of the public service media into a propaganda tool violates the right […] to a fair election”, and that this transformation “poses the question of whether the election of the Polish members of the European Parliament in May 2019 was conducted in an honest and fair manner”.

Wiadomości’s election coverage will continue, as Poland will hold parliamentary elections this fall. Wiadomości and TVP have the potential to significantly affect voters’ perceptions of both PiS and the opposition.

“Watching Wiadomości every day, they are doing exactly what they did during the previous election period”, Krajewski said. “It’s propaganda. For instance, almost every day they denigrate [President of the European Council and former Polish Prime Minister] Donald Tusk because possibly he will be a candidate for Polish president, so they want to lower his chances in the local elections.”

Without fair, balanced, and transparent coverage of all political parties, Polish citizens cannot make informed decisions at the polling booths.

“With such strong propaganda by public media, which is illegal, the results of the elections are questionable”, Krajewski said.