The International Press Institute (IPI) today raises the alarm about an investigation opened by Poland’s broadcast media regulator against television network TVN over a documentary it broadcasted which reported new revelations surrounding the 2010 Smoleńsk air disaster.
On December 30, 2022, the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT), which has long been controlled by allies of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, opened the regulatory investigation over allegations that the documentary had “propagated false information” and “threatened public security”.
The probe into the documentary, ‘The Power of A Lie’, was initiated by KRRiT’s new chairman, Maciej Świrski, who is viewed as being aligned with the ruling party. The program presented evidence that a government committee re-investigating the crash which killed former president Lech Kaczyński, his wife and multiple other senior officials had deliberately ignored or misrepresented key findings.
TVN has since stood by the investigative reporting in the September 2022 documentary and characterized the investigation as groundless. The KRRiT probe could lead to major fines and even a revocation of TVN’s broadcast licence, which is due to expire in 2024.
U.S.-owned TVN and its flagship news channel, TVN24, have long been a target of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and its efforts to “repolonize” the country’s media landscape. The influential station, which is often critical of the government, has faced economic, legal, political, regulatory pressure in recent years, as documented in IPI and MFRR reports.
“This investigation by KRRiT represents another front in the coordinated campaign of pressure against TVN and TVN24 by PiS and its allies through captured media regulators in recent years”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “The grounds on which this probe has been initiated by the council chairperson are unsubstantiated and appear to have been initiated following political pressure. We urge KRRiT to drop its investigation immediately.
“In the worst-case scenario, this probe could be used by the PiS-controlled regulator as part of a trumped-up excuse to refuse further down the line to approve the renewal of TVN’s license. Even in the less serious scenarios, it will act as another wave of pressure against TVN and stoke additional uncertainty about its licence renewal in the coming years. Watchdog journalism probing matters of public interest cannot be subjected to these kinds of retaliatory attacks.”
The 77-minute documentary by journalist Piotr Świerczek re-examined previous conclusions about the cause of the Smoleńsk plane crash, which has long been an issue of controversy and conspiracy in Poland. Initial investigations after the crash concluded that the explosion was an accident.
However, a different PiS-initiated investigation later concluded the plane had crashed as a result of a deliberate explosion. PiS leadership and Kaczyński’s brother, Jarosław, the current president, have argued the crash was caused by Russia to murder the then president.
The TVN investigation presented evidence that a subcommittee charged years later with investigating the crash had found results which contradicted the thesis of an explosion in the plane’s wing. It also reported that Antoni Macierewicz, who led the subcommittee and is a close ally of PiS, decided not to publish them in the final report.
In response, Macierewicz filed a complaint with KRRiT and the regulator’s chairperson then initiated proceedings to investigate TVN for allegedly violating the Broadcasting and Television Act. Macierewicz has previously been a leading voice in arguing that the plane crash was a deliberate Russian attack. He accused TVN of spreading “lies” that “present the Russian point of view, misleading the Polish public opinion”.
A statement by KRRiT said: “The Chairman of the National Broadcasting Council will also investigate to what extent the possible dissemination of untrue and unreliable information violates the terms of the concession granted to TVN SA to broadcast the program under the name of TVN”.
TVN responded by publishing a statement saying: “The analysis of the broadcast and the law clearly shows that there are no factual or legal grounds to impose a penalty on the broadcaster, and this proceeding is pointless and should be discontinued”, adding that it was the “the primary duty and role of the media is to control and express opinions on the actions of the government”.
In an act of solidarity, dozens of Poland’s largest private media outlets from across the political spectrum republished TVN’s investigation, including Onet, Wirtualna Polska, Gazeta Wyborcza, Rzeczpospolita, Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, Newsweek Polska, radio stations RMF and Radio Zet.
Campaign of pressure
TVN has long faced pressure from the PiS-led governments. In late 2021, PiS attempted to pass a controversial media bill that would have tightened the rules around foreign ownership of media in the country. The new rules were aimed at slicing through TVN’s ownership structure and forcing U.S.-owned Discovery to sell its controlling stake in TVN. The bill was later vetoed by the president.
The bill – dubbed Lex TVN – was part of a longer-term push towards the “repolonization” of the media by the PiS-led ruling camp, which involves reducing foreign ownership of media companies in Poland. Some politicians in the ruling party have long claimed that foreign-owned media outlets, especially German-owned ones, are deliberately critical of the current government.
An earlier victim of “repolonization” was one of the country’s largest media companies, Polska Press, which was acquired from German company Verlagssgruppe Passau in December 2020 by state-controlled oil refiner and petrol retailer PKN Orlen. This resulted in a purge of editorial management at regional newspapers it owns.
In 2021, KRRiT was forced to repeatedly postpone its decision about the renewal of TVN24’s 10-year media license until the five-member panel was able to agree on the decision, increasing uncertainty for TVN and leading to accusations the decision is being deliberately delayed by conservative members of the council.
PiS wields significant powers over the regulation of media in Poland via its control over the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT) and the National Media Council (NMC). The NMC is an integral part of the institutional machinery of media capture which PiS has constructed in the last few years to establish greater control over the country’s public media organs and distort them into government mouthpieces.
Read more of IPI’s reporting on media freedom in Poland here.
This statement by IPI is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries, and Ukraine. The project is co-funded by the European Commission.