EU Vs. Poland Rule-of-Law Dispute: Warsaw Steps Up Media-Bashing Campaign

Written by | Thursday, August 12th, 2021

Poland’s de facto leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has said the country would change its system of disciplining judges to compromise in a long-standing legal dispute with Brussels. However, the leader of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party also said the disciplinary chamber — which the European Union has said breaks the bloc’s laws — would not so much cease functioning, as take a different shape. In a separate but related development, Polish lawmakers have passed a controversial new media ownership law that could lead to the country’s largest remaining independent TV station losing its license, but at the cost of several key votes that put the government’s long term future in doubt. After a night of protests in Warsaw and dozens of other cities and towns against the bill, which opponents see as an attempt to silence an often critical broadcaster, the law passed on Wednesday (11 August) by 228 votes to 216 in the 460-seat lower house.
The European Commission said on Tuesday (10 August) it would analyze Poland’s decision to scrap a disciplinary system for judges but stressed the 16 August deadline remains unchanged. The Polish U-turn came last week ahead of a 16 August deadline set by the EU executive to disband the Disciplinary Chamber which the EU says is being used to pressure judges or exert political control over judicial decisions. Meanwhile, the Polish parliament has passed a controversial law on media ownership castigated by the opposition as a threat to press freedom, following a chaotic day in the country’s legislature. Yesterday’s vote also tested the ruling-party chief Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s grip on power after six years of clashes with the EU. The voting came amid stormy scenes after the Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, a day earlier fired his deputy, Jaroslaw Gowin, the leader of the junior coalition member Accord, for criticizing the law, prompting the party to leave the government.
Since 2015, the year that the populist PiS party came to power in Poland, Poland’s ranking in the annual World Press Freedom Index slid from the 18th spot to the 64th spot out of 164 countries this year, ending up just below Malawi and Armenia. The move is just the latest in a sustained, three-pronged assault on Poland’s media freedoms that began soon after PiS’s 2015 election victory. During the PiS’ tenure, aggressively partisan news coverage has been the norm. Analysis of TVP’s flagship evening news program in 2019 found that in the run-up to EU elections that year, of 105 items about the polls, 69 were focused on PiS, of which 68 were positive and one neutral, while all 33 items about the opposition were negative. A separate study found the Polish state television TVP systematically portrayed the ruling party in a positive light, routinely used words such as “reform”, “sovereign”, “strong”, “hero” and “patriotic”, while items about the opposition deployed words such as “shocking”, “scandalous”, “provocation” and “putsch”. At the same time, independent media have been targeted in many ways, which, TV and radio stations said, would threaten their very survival.

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