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Poland’s journalists caught up in battle for airwaves

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    1 day ago
Image source, Getty Images

Outside Poland’s main evening news studio there’s a row of police stationed for protection.

The entire building of public broadcaster TVP is surrounded by metal barriers and more police officers, shivering in the snow.

There is a battle over control of the airwaves here that is dramatic in itself.

But it’s also part of a much broader power struggle that began when elections last autumn ended eight years of populist rule.

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“It’s quite stressful. It’s crazy!” TVP news presenter Zbigniew Luczynski admits as he heads past the police to go on air, a bundle of scripts in one hand.

“But our mission is very important to us: to tell the truth – and be objective.”

News presenter Zbigniew Luczynski stands in a corridor reading notes

Image source, Matthew Goddard/BBC

When Donald Tusk ran for election late last year, his coalition promised to restore balance to the media and stop funding a “factory of lies and hatred”.

Under the previous, right-wing government, public TV and radio channels had become fiercely partisan – some say dangerously so.

So in December, the new culture minister sacked TVP top management and the 24-hour news channel was knocked off air.

The backlash was immediate.

Senior opposition figures denounced an illegal takeover and laid siege to TVP offices. They overwhelmed security to burst into the lobby and stage a sit-in.

A rival management team later entered the main news building in the city centre.

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When we went behind the scenes at TVP last week the protesters had gone from reception. But the police, constant ID checks, and the nerves remained.

With news HQ still occupied, the journalists had moved into TVP’s main studios building, primarily used for entertainment programmes.

Teams were researching, writing and editing wherever they found space, including in a former bathroom with taps poking from the tiled walls.

Journalists from TVP-Info stand around a computer in a bathroom

Image source, Matthew Goddard/BBC

The 24-hour channel, TVP Info, is back on air, but it’s broadcasting from little more than a broom cupboard.

The flagship evening news show has also returned.

To mark the break, Wiadomosci was rebranded as 19:30 – the first name change in its history.

The old team have gone, led by the famous “faces”. Only the technicians remain. “Still here, like the cockroaches,” as one of them joked.

“We wanted to change everything, starting with the language. Because for the last eight years it has been the language of hate, of exclusion,” Pawel Pluska, the new editor of 19:30 explained.

“I want to show that this is a television that is open to everyone and all views will be presented here – and they are.”

On screen behind him during an editorial meeting were images from an opposition protest the previous night in Warsaw. TVP sent teams to cover it, keen to show their impartiality in action.

The rally was called by former ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) in defence of “free media” and against the actions of the coalition government.

“There is no more democracy,” one of the protesters, Jacek, told me bluntly. “They break the rules. They have their own rules.”

Former government supporters protest in front of the public tv channel TVP headquarters in Warsaw, Poland on 21 December 2023.

Image source, Getty Images

Many of the chants were crude and fiercely anti-Donald Tusk, portraying the prime minister as a “traitor” and a supposed German “agent”.

They’re the kind of slurs state TV has been pumping out for years and a reminder of why the government moved so quickly to shut it down.

They’re also a reminder of how polarised Poland has become.

Many protesters carried portraits of two former MPs, imprisoned this month for abuse of power.

The men are now paraded as heroic “political prisoners” by PiS supporters and are openly backed by Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda.

Their detention, after seeking refuge in the presidential palace, was a moment of political theatre.

There’s likely to be more to come.

Head shot of programme editor Pawel Pluska

Image source, Matthew Goddard/BBC

Donald Tusk has promised to unravel controversial reforms to the judiciary that the EU says politicised Polish courts.

But when the justice ministry sacked a national prosecutor appointed by PiS, Poland’s top court – the Constitutional Tribunal – promptly ordered him reinstated.

Marching with the protesters in central Warsaw last Thursday, opposition PiS MP Arkadiusz Mularczyk claimed the takeover of TVP was “the way to tyranny” in Poland.

He swerved the point that public media – funded by people’s taxes – had been a PiS party mouthpiece for the past eight years.

“Ninety percent of media in Poland are biased. They support the liberal government party,” Mr Mularczyk argued, referring to commercial channels.

The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights had noted its own “serious concerns” about the government’s methods.

At the same time, it stressed that the public channels had become a propaganda tool and the home of hate speech.

The government eventually put them into liquidation, to allow for total restructuring.

“We chose the right path. There were no cleaner solutions … I think that what we are doing is very clean and responsible,” Deputy Prime Minister Krzysztof Gawkowski insisted, when I challenged him on the methods the coalition had used.

“The problem is that we’ve not had public media for eight years. It was Party TV, financed by all citizens. We just want the public media to be independent.”

Inside the police cordon, that’s also what the new recruits to TVP say they want.

But Pawel Pluska admits most PiS politicians refuse to talk directly to his journalists, considering them “usurpers”.

Several people told me a TVP cameraman had been punched at the opposition protest for a “free” media.

Head shot of reporter Blanka Dzugaj

Image source, Matthew Goddard/BBC

“There’s a lot of hatred,” and a lot of tears, reporter Blanka Dzugaj confides.

She’s been called a “swine” on social media and a government propagandist.

“It’s emotionally difficult, because we’re trying to do something really good and important, and we hear something like this.”

The abuse and chaos haven’t put her off her hope of creating an “entirely new Polish TV”. She calls that “the most important thing in journalism”.

Some of the right-wing audience has already switched to Republika, a little-watched channel that’s now seen a surge in viewing figures.

But TVP remains the main source of news for around a third of all Poles.

For those who stay watching, the new team hope their approach can begin to heal the rift.

“The audience has stopped hearing that voice every day saying ‘Tusk is German’ or that everyone else wants to devour, destroy and dismantle Poland,” editor Pawel Pluska explains his thinking.

“Everyone has their views, but we don’t have to fight.”

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