Poland’s National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT) last week decided to repeal a 1.5 million złoty (356,000 euros) fine it had levied against private broadcaster TVN, even as KRRiT officials continued to warn Poland’s private broadcasters over allegedly unbalanced coverage.
The fine, announced on Dec. 11, 2017, was for news channel TVN24’s coverage of protests outside the Polish parliament on Dec. 16 to 18, 2016. KRRiT alleged that TVN infringed a law “by promoting illegal activities and encouraging behaviour that threatens security”.
Justifying its decision in a lengthy statement published on Dec. 13, KRRiT alleged that TVN24’s coverage “involved encouraging viewers to participate in the gathering outside the parliament, not informing viewers that the police dissolved the gathering outside parliament, one-sided presentation of the events through selection of the commentators and guests invited to the studio, false presentation of events outside the parliament by manipulating images and a lack of prompt rectification of untrue information”.
The fine, which corresponded to .001 percent of TVN’s revenue in 2016, drew criticism at home and abroad.
In a statement on Dec. 12, the US Department of State expressed its concern about the fine, which it said “appears to undermine media freedom in Poland”. In Poland, media executives saw the fine as part of the authorities’ efforts to discourage media criticism of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, in power since 2015. Indeed, speaking to news portal wpolityce.pl, Hanna Karp, the author of the expert opinion used by KRRiT, called the fine “a red warning lamp, prompting commercial broadcasters and commercial information stations to reflect”.
The fine’s revocation follows the appointment of a new prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, the previous minister of finance and of the economy. After his appointment on Dec. 11, 2017, Morawiecki was quick to distance himself from the fine, highlighting KRRiT’s autonomy from the government. “I think that this matter will be clarified very soon,” he told the press during a visit to Brussels on Dec. 14.
On Jan. 10, KRRiT published a statement announcing that it would revoke the fine.
Yet commenting on the decision, KRRiT’s chairman, Witold Kołodziejski has maintained that TVN24’s coverage was unacceptable.
“Repealing the fine does not solve the problem and I count on much more effective resolution of the problem via self-regulation and the milieu ‘coming to its senses’ a bit,” he told Rzeczpospolita, a daily, in an interview published on January 12.
International Press Institute (IPI) Deputy Director Scott Griffen welcomed KRRiT’s decision but expressed concern about the precedent set by the fine.
“We continue to view this fine, particularly in light of the disproportionate original amount and the veiled warnings by KRRiT officials, as a signal to Poland’s television broadcasters that content not to the liking of the government may incur serious consequences,” he said. “Such signals, particularly if they become a pattern, risk prompting media self-censorship and thereby interfering with the Polish public’s right to receive information on matters of public interest.
Founded in 1997, privately owned broadcaster TVN was purchased in 2015 by American media company Scripps Networks Interactive. (In July 2017, it was announced that the company is being acquired by Discovery Communications.) TVN and TVN24 are among Poland’s most-watched television channels. In November 2017, they ranked first and sixth, with an audience share of 11 percent and 4 percent, respectively, according to Nielsen Audience Measurement figures published by media portal Wirtualnemedia.pl. The broadcaster’s evening news programme, Fakty (Facts), broadcast on both TVN and TVN24, is the country’s most-watched evening programme, with a combined average of 3.3 million viewers in November 2017, giving it a market share of 23 percent. In comparison, public broadcaster TVP’s evening news programme Wiadomości (News), shown on TVN1 and news channel TVP Info, had a combined market share of 18 percent.
In Poland’s polarised media landscape, TVN has established itself as an independent alternative to TVP’s consistently pro-government coverage. Its coverage of the protests outside parliament last December ran late into the night. Meanwhile, TVP proceeded to present the protests as a “coup” attempt by the opposition – the title of a self-described documentary on those events, broadcast on TVP1 in January 2017.