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Poland: Public broadcaster rift shows PiS split

Olivia Kortas
March 11, 2020

After an ally of ruling party hard-liners was dismissed as public television head, President Andrzej Duda agreed to fund the state broadcaster. TVP has long been considered the organ of the ruling Law and Justice party.

TVP building in Warsaw
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/NurPhoto/K. Dobuszynski

Polish President Andrzej Duda stood side by side with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki before the media on March 6. Duda announced that he was signing a law that would guarantee the public television broadcaster, TVP, about €450 million ($500 million) in funding. But that particular evening wasn't really about TVP: It was about two politicians from the centrist wing of Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party celebrating their triumph.

The nationalist PiS won a majority of seats in parliament in 2015 and, from behind the scenes, party leader Jaroslaw Kacyznski has pulled the levers of power in Poland ever since. Now, Duda has successfully put pressure on Kaczynski. But, two months before the presidential election on May 10, Duda remained hesitant to put his signature on the measure to fund TVP. For many observers, it was yet another example of division within the PiS.

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On March 6, the National Media Council announced the imminent dismissal of TVP head Jacek Kurski. Shortly before midnight that same day, Duda signed the measure to fund TVP into law. "Duda couldn't stand up and say: I am only signing this law if Kurski goes," said Piotr Trudnowski, who heads the conservative think tank Klub Jagiellonski. "But every political observer knows that's what took place behind the scenes." On Tuesday, March 10, Kurski was officially let go.

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Duda needs moderates

Kurski is a favorite of hard-liners within the PiS. He enjoys the support of both Kaczynski and Justice Minister Zgibniew Ziobro, the driving force behind Poland's curbing of the judiciary. In January 2016, shortly after the PiS won parliamentary elections, Kurski was named head of TVP. Under his leadership, the broadcaster has become a propaganda channel for the government. TVP defames opposition politicians and critical judges. Its manipulative chyrons are infamous and have served as the inspiration for countless memes on the internet.

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For the majority of people in Poland, TVP has taken things too far. According to a new poll from market research institute Ipsos, 51.6% of Poles believe that TVP is not fulfilling its mandate. In Poland, public media are obligated to provide balanced reporting. Even centrist voters are put off by TVP. This has been particularly troublesome for Duda, who is in the midst of a presidential election campaign and needs the support of centrists.

"The conflict over TVP has existed within the ruling party for months," Trudnowski said. The dispute has created a division between PiS hard-liners and centrists. Trudnowski said the division had deepened in the wake of the October 2019 parliamentary elections, in which the PiS only emerged with a narrow majority. Now, one faction of the PiS has called for the party to take even more extreme measures, while the other seeks a more moderate path.

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Behind-the-scenes political fighting

Duda's victory over Kurski is unlikely to provide the decisive boost that he needs to win reelection. The political fighting will continue behind the scenes. "It will be difficult to sell the whole thing as a success for Duda, because for normal voters this power struggle is not obvious," Trudnowski said. Duda also risks losing the support of voters who supported Kurski and TVP.

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"I can very well imagine that Kurski will only have to go for a short time," said Janusz Adamowski, a media scholar and journalism professor at the University of Warsaw. Officially, Kurski was supposed to be let go a day earlier, Adamowski said. According to the news portal Onet, Kurski's dismissal was delayed because he fought to retain his influence until the very end.

Trudnowski said Kurski's demise had created an opportunity for TVP to adopt a more moderate approach. "If Duda wins the election, the broadcaster will certainly become more moderate," he said. "TVP will only return to its old stance if Duda loses."

Adamowski does not believe that the broadcaster will change its programming: "Kurski's people will continue as before because the government wants to continue to shape public opinion — and, in its current form, TVP is an important tool for that."

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