Donald Tusk’s government is slowly gaining momentum. Squeaks coming from PiS side as they are being gradually pulled away from the through are getting louder too. As Donald Tusk wrote on his twitter, it won’t be light, easy and pleasant work. How hard, difficult and unpleasant it might get we saw when TVP had been being taken over from PiS propagandists (see last week’s piece). And the matter is still ongoing.
It’s complicated, so let me explain it in chronological order:
1. After taking power in 2015 PiS created a loophole allowing change of management in TVP, the state broadcaster using the law on companies against the recommendation of the media ombudsman.
2. Later they replaced the board of the media ombudsman body and created another layer of defence by creating another, semi-parallel body called the “National Media Council” and granted it the right to decide who is in charge of TVP. As a result, the directors of state broadcasters cannot be replaced without the NMC, which is fully staffed by pro-PIS politicians, and the members of the NMC can be replaced only by the original media ombudsman, which is also staffed largely by PiS politicians. The law cannot be changed, as President Duda will veto it.
3. However back in 2017 the Constitutional Tribunal (which hasn’t been under the full control of PiS yet) ruled that those changes were illegal, so the new government can ignore them and use that pothole from point 1.
4. Unfortunately for PiS, they forgot to close it. They realised too late and ordered the Constitutional Tribunal to rule that this was illegal, but firstly, the Constitutional Tribunal is not a real court any more, and secondly, even if it was, it’s not within its prerogatives – The tribunal can only rule if a bill itself is not contradictory to the Constitution.
5. The Tusk government used that loophole to appoint new directors. This was ignored by PiS propagandists (although welcomed by many regular employees of the media), who staged an occupation of the buildings of TVP, Polish Press Agency and other institutions. They were joined by dozens of PiS politicians, but despite their calls for the public to come and show their support, the response from the public was pretty meagre. Still, the new management had to take the institution over by force, which led to the signal TVP going off-line after a PiS propagandist from TVP Info went to the main channel to interrupt the farming program after his own program was cancelled:
6. As the PiS-appointed director of TVP agreed to give up his job, they appointed one of the leading propagandists, Michał Adamczyk, as a new director – which was largely ignored by everyone but PiS.
Although due to lack of support, the occupation of the buildings largely ended, pro-PiS employees of TVP still refused to give up, they broadcast from pro-PiS station TV Republika posing to be some kind of “TVP in Exile”, they also refused to give up access to the social media profiles, which led to curious situation that while TVP Info returned as much, much, much less biased information source, their social media pretends to be “the last bastion of free public media” and attacks the new government by using archival recording and retweeting leading PiS propagandists.
7. This whole kerfuffle made ripples in the international media, as many self-appointed “Eastern European experts”, such as Sergei Sumlenny for example, were alarmed about Donald Tusk crushing the freedom of the press in Poland, arguing that TVP World was a completely different entity to TVP and a reliable news source, often pointing to its decent coverage of Ukraine. This is of course not true, and TVP World, although it had decent reporting too, was just a different kind of propaganda tool: translating media 1:1 for the foreign audience would simply not work because English speaking audience has plenty of English language news channels to chose – from BBC and CNN through Deutsche Welle and France24 to AlJazeera. Therefore the propaganda had to be skilfully intertwined with decent reporting. From the leaked e-mails from the account of PiS government minister Michał Dworczyk we know, that this channel was established to be not an equivalent of BBC News, but of Russia Today. It is worth mentioning that international defenders of TVP Info seem to be mostly either regular guests or employees of TVP World, or people with alleged contacts to Russia (after his fierce defence of TVP World Sumlenny was also put under close scrutiny in that matter).
8. As for the time of writing, TVP is broadcasting again, although the new team has to work with limited access to equipment, archives and social media, as the old team refused to pass them over. The occupation has ended, as PiS failed to rally popular support and it was becoming a bit ridiculous when the only ones trying to defend “freedom of the press” were PiS politicians and their propagandists. The fate of TVP World is under review, but for now, the station has a bigger problem: as the new management took over, it has emerged that the station is in tragic financial condition. Extra funding was approved by the parliament, but this has been vetoed by President Andrzej Duda – which seemed to be a bad mistake on his part, as in turn, the TVP had to be put under administration, which will make sacking PiS propagandists even easier.
As Donald Tusk’s government takes over, we are learning a lot more about how public media operates under PiS. The tragic financial situation might be, in part, caused by the fact, that top PiS propagandists were earning crazy money: Michał Adamczyk for example as director of the TV Information Agency and the face of the news night program made more than 1.5 million zł in just over 7 months in 2023, which is more than twice as much as the chairman of the BBC makes.
The “battle” for the TVP buildings undisclosed some peculiarities too. There was a portrait of Kaczyński hanging on the wall just outside the director’s office. And the PiS MP’s complaining that their access codes to be building were cancelled and they cannot move freely around any more suggest, that not only they HAD access codes allowing them free access, but they saw nothing wrong with it. Jarosław Kaczyński also disclosed in the interview how he came home at 3 am and turned his TV set on to find that there was no signal, so he called the director of TVP to check what was wrong (it turned if was his fault, as he pressed the wrong button on his remote or something). Asked about it during the press conference, Kaczyński got angry, explained that it’s nothing strange and everyone can do that, then got even more angry asked about some other things, abused journalists from independent media and left.
But apparently having the boss of TVP on speed dial allowed Kaczyński to interfere with its working in other ways. We learned that several movies were blacklisted by the station – most of them directed or starred by critics of PiS, such as Agnieszka Holland, Krystyna Janda or Jerzy Stuhr, but also movies that touched on topics like in vitro, abortion, or becoming friends with black refugees. Some radio journalists disclosed that they were instructed not to play songs with lyrics in Polish before or after interviews with PiS politicians, in case some of the lyrics could be associated in them in a wrong way…
Luckily it becomes clear that PiS and their allies won’t be getting special treatment any more. Łukasz Mejza, a PiS MP, just got fined 78500 zł for plastering the city with 1000s of his banners without permission during the recent electoral campaign. Energy company wants to sue its former CEO appointed by PiS for losses caused by pushing for building a coal-powered energy block that had to be demolished after over 650 million of zł had been sunk into it. The church’s plan to build a luxury hotel on the lands in the protected area that they received from the state for free had to be put on hold after the building permit had been voided by the court. The commission for investigating paedophilia standards announced that they are ending with just “politely asking the church” to provide requested documents, and if necessary the police will be sent to the curia to take them by force.
But all those things are minor issues compared to the real stress the Polish justice is facing regarding Maciej Wąsik and Mariusz Kamiński. And this is so complicated that we have to explore it in chronological order again:
1. Wąsik and Kamiński were leading the Central Anti-corruption Bureau the previous time PiS was in power in 2005 and 2007. As Kaczyński had a problem with his coalition partner Andrzej Lepper, they were tasked with a mission to frame him in a corruption scandal. They failed, which led to the collapse of the coalition and PiS was removed from power after having to call a snap election.
2. Wąsik and Kamiński were accused of exceeding their authority and abusing their position, for which they were sentenced to jail time in 2015. Andrzej Duda granted them a presidential pardon (see more here).
3. Presidential pardon has been contested, as they were only sentenced by the court of first instance and they appealed, and since a person is innocent under proven guilty, they could not be pardoned, as you can’t pardon an innocent man. Andrzej Duda argued that “he wants to free the justice system from the burden of having to deal with that case” but the fact is, Kaczyński wanted them to take control of our special services.
4. The justice system decided that they would burden themselves after all and after the High Court ruled that the presidential pardon was invalid, continued court proceedings. Recently Wąsik and Kamiński have been found guilty and sentenced to two years of jail each. And that’s where the matters get complicated, so fasten your seatbelts as it’s going to be a wild ride:
5. Kamiński and Wąsik have been elected as MPs to the new parliament, so as they are now convicted criminals, speaker Szymon Hołownia voided their mandates (it was just a formality, and they should be replaced by PiS candidates from the district that gathered next biggest number of votes). Hołownia acknowledged that they have the right to appeal this decision, but asked them to show some decency and refrain from taking part in parliamentary proceedings, as the matter is pretty obvious.
6. The next day Kamiński comes to the parliament, is applauded by his party colleagues, and shows a victory sign and then a vulgar gesture towards the ruling coalition:
7. Kamiński and Wąsik file an appeal avoiding proper procedures (they should file it to the speaker, but instead they delivered the paperwork to the chamber of the high court that had been created by PiS and deemed illegal by the High Court, European Tribunal of Justice and European Tribunal of human rights – so basically, to the illegal court.
Day after speaker Hołownia delivers the complete paperwork to the court, but as the chairman of the High Court is another judge illegally appointed by PiS, he sends a personal messenger to ensure the paperwork will be filed with proper department staffed with legally appointed judges, but part of the paperwork is hijacked by illegal judges appointed by PiS, who “rule” that it was illegal for speaker Hołownia to strip Wąsik of his mandate and returns the paperwork to Hołownia, who send it back to the correct chamber of the court.
But the existence of the previous “ruling” means, that this chamber now has to first rule on whether the other chamber can be considered legal court or not, as they can’t rule again on the same case.
8. All this legal wrestling in the high court will take time, which puts speaker Hołownia in the pickle, as he has to decide if he will allow Wąsik and Kamiński to further participate in the work of the parliament or not, which could lead to some of its decisions being contested in the future, while PiS is already preparing the ground for making Wąsik and Kamiński martyrs, calling them “political prisoners that Donald Tusk wants to jail because they were fighting corruption”.
As I said last time, it will take a lot of time and work to get Polish democracy back on track…
This text was written for Britské Listy
Picture: screenshot from Sejm’s online transmission