First Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmerman announced on Wednesday 13th January 2016, that a
probe looking into the latest laws created by the Polish government would take place.
In late 2015, the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party who is in power approved a law that would allow the Treasury of Poland to appoint the heads of public television and radio, and judges for Poland’s constitutional court. Since the laws enactment a former PiS party member has been placed as Head of Public Television.
The European Union fears that Poland who until recently was a highly democratic nation, was abandoning the ‘rule of law’. The ‘rule of law’ can be simply defined as the legal principle that law should govern a nation, as opposed to being governed by arbitrary decisions of individual government officials.
Taking steps back
Since the collapse of Communism in 1989, Poland has gained a reputation of being the shining light in democratic transformation in Eastern Europe. But since the election of the PiS in late 2014, the government has tightened its control over the civil service, the courts and the media.
Traditionally the heads of the public television and radio in Poland were elected by a procedure overseen by the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT. Now the government will have all the control, which is a move that is upsetting media advocacy groups and the European Union (EU).
Alexandra Geneste, Head of EU and Balkans for the Reports San Friontieres stated over email correspondents that media law reforms in Poland is violation of basic media rights.
“No need to this is worrying, this law constitutes a flagrant violation of media freedom and pluralism, which are enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU,” said Geneste.
In order to be a member of the European Union, a state must adhere to the Charter of Fundamental Rights. In pertaining to the media the charters says, “the freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected” (Article 11, point 2).
Geneste says PiS are violating ‘Article 11’ due to their wish to control the output of the media and use it as a mouthpiece for the government.
“The new government is going after the media the same way its enemies, the communist did, years ago, when they wanted to use the media as a propaganda tool.
This isn’t the first time the government has sort to control the media in Poland. In November 2015, a broadcaster for the public channel TVP was suspended after she questioned Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister and Culture Minister, Piotr Glinski in a heated exchange about his decision to prevent a ‘controversial’ theatre production being shown.
Lewicka was suspended on the bases that her interviewing style was contrary to standards of public television. In an ethics report conducted by the TVP Ethic Committee about the incident, it concluded the stance of the Minister and his declarations were also to be blamed for the way the interview turned out.
Interestingly, the ‘World Press Freedom Index’ has named Poland in it’s top twenty most free with a score of 12.71, the past two years. The index takes into account legal framework for the media, whether there is a member monopoly in the state and level of independence. The lower the score the more freedom the media possesses.
If the ‘World Press Freedom Index’ is to be believed Polish media freedom has come along way since 2005, where it was sitting in the fifties. But Geneste believes that unless the EU is able to amend this law, Poland’s media credible and ranking will fall.
“It is difficult to anticipate what position Poland will then hold but, if the new media law is not amended or repealed before then, we can indeed expect its ranking to be affected… only hope is that under the pressure of the EU institutions, Warsaw will amend the new law,” stated Geneste.
What is the EU to do?
The European Commission has taken the first step in what they call ‘opening the dialogue’ with Poland. Timmermans announced yesterday as reaction to what the Commission sees as a potential breakdown of the ‘rule of law’.
Firstly the Commission will collect and examine all the information regarding to new Polish law and assess whether there is a threat to the rule of law. If resolution is not found in the first instance, they will recommend certain measures to the Polish government to be complied with in a certain period of time. And finally the Commission will monitor the ongoing process of the implementation of its recommendations; if this is seen to be unsatisfactory they can resort to the ‘Article 7 Procedure’ from the Lisbon Treaty.
In simple terms in ‘Article 7 Procedure’ can mean the EU will suspense Poland from voting in the European Council, which means that they wouldn’t be able to shape EU policy or the EU would apply sanctions, which could be potential disastrous for the economy.
The Polish Responses
The Polish government have responded to the EU criticism by defending their actions and stating the EU doesn’t understand the new laws. Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro accused Timmermans of ‘lack of knowledge’, and insists that the criticism is unfair and unjustified.
While the outcome of this dispute is yet to be seen, many Polish citizens and media advocacy groups are protesting the governments move. On Wednesday 13th January, approximately twenty thousand people protested outside the State Broadcasting Centre in Warsaw. Some were seen taping their mouths shut in solidarity and carrying signs mocking the government as a democratic dictatorship.
The move to government control media seems highly reminiscent of a communist run media, Geneste believes that unless the EU interferes these laws might be impossible to counter.
“Once into law, these changes will be written black on white for years and impossible to counter,” Geneste stated.