Poland Cracks Down On Liberal Media | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 23.03.2007
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Poland Cracks Down On Liberal Media

A group of Polish journalists are refusing to be screened by the government. They say authorities are using a recently passed vetting law to hit back against the liberal opposition and conduct a witch hunt in the media.

The Kacynskis want positive media coverage -- not mockery

The Kacynskis want positive media coverage -- not mockery

When the well-known and fiercely independent journalist Bronislaw Wildstein was fired from his post as head of public television earlier this month, it came as no surprise to media observers in Poland.

In theory, Wildstein was answerable only to the independent national media council. But in reality, he had been the target of constant attacks from the ruling conservatives and their minority coalition partners, who demanded more air time and a friendlier news coverage.

According to government sources, Wildstein -- who consistently refused to yield to such pressure -- was fired on the personal orders of the Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the twin brother of President Lech Kaczynski. Wildstein loudly protested against what he described as politicians tampering with media freedom.

"The way I was dismissed was questionable," Wildstein said. "Purely political motives stood behind it. If this unfortunate incident is followed by more political pressure being put on public television, it will be very serious indeed."

Some 700,000 people are to be screened in Poland -- including all of the country's journalists -- in a sweeping process of outing former communist secret police agents. But many regard the campaign as controversial in view of the conservative government's growing pressure on public media to toe the official line.

The media's prestige has been ruined

Poland's main opposition party, the liberal Citizens Platform, has long voiced concern over what it regards as dangerous trends in the authorities' attitude to public media. It has published a report quoting numerous instances of journalists critical of the ruling PIS party being removed from jobs at public radio and television.

Wahlen in Polen Jan Rokita

Rokita is highly critical of the government's media policies

In fact, Polish Radio recently announced it is making some 300 broadcasters redundant, ostensibly on the grounds of restructuring. But the report clearly showed that those who replace them are more than ready to toe the official line. Opposition leader Jan Maria Rokita is outraged at the latest changes at Polish Television.

"It's a scandal," Rokita said. "The prestige of this institution has been ruined."

Rokita said the newly appointed head of public television was until very recently in charge of the president's office.

"So a competent and independent person was replaced by a loyalist," Rokita said. "This is nothing new under this administration. The Kaczynski twins who rule Poland just couldn't stomach someone with a mind of their own."

PIS coverage is an obsession

Media monitoring expert Andrzej Krajewski from the independent Batory Foundation said he is convinced that the leaders of the ruling PIS party misunderstand the role of the media in a free society.

"I think it's like an obsession," Krajewski said. "The biggest coverage is for PIS, but only for PIS. I think it probably reflects the thinking of the two Kaczynski brothers about the media."

He said the twins thought the media should cover whatever is the most important for the country. For them, the government was the most important -- and this was their party.

"That's exactly what the media shouldn't do," Krajewski said. "The media should work for the people and usually against the government."

Are the Kaczynski twins becoming like Big Brother?

For more and more ordinary Polish viewers, public television is no longer a reliable news source. Instead, they are turning to TVN24, a round the clock news channel run by the country's largest private television network.

Die Gebrüder Kaczynski

The Kaczynski brothers have jointly ruled Poland since 2006

The Polish government has repeatedly accused the station's journalists of manipulating facts. Some officials have also hinted that its origins lie in ex-communist circles, which they claim are sabotaging the government's attempts to rid Poland of all remaining communist influence.

Yet while an increasingly number of viewers are turning to private, opposition media, conservative media commentators loyal to the government respond that there is nothing wrong with the Polish media scene. Audiences, they said, have the freedom to choose.

But media watcher Krajewski said he thinks that the Kaczynski twins have undermined one of the very foundations on which Poland's anti-communist Solidarity revolution was based two decades ago.

"Historically, independent media are one of the biggest achievements of the 18 years of freedom in Poland," Krajewski said. He said much of this could be attributed to Solidarity and its underground papers.

"I hope that these attacks which are being executed against the public media right now will not crush the independence of the media," Krajewski said. "However, the situation is definitely one to watch and one to care about."

While Krajewski sounds a cautious warning for Poland's ruling elite, other commentators go even further. Some say that the Kaczynski twins are coming disturbingly close to George Orwell's image of Big Brother -- and not in the sense of reality TV.

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