Polish state media puts squeeze on presidential challenger

As Poland’s presidential election heads for a bitterly contested run-off between Rafal Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw, and incumbent Andrzej Duda on Sunday, the state broadcaster TVP has left viewers in little doubt on which candidate should prevail.

On June 9, TVP ran a segment noting that Mr Trzaskowski had attended the Bilderberg group and received a scholarship financed by George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist. It also questioned whether he had Polish interests at heart. A week later, it insinuated that if he won, he could divert money from the government’s popular welfare programmes to meet Jewish restitution claims for property lost during and after the second world war.

“Fear is growing among voters that a possible electoral win for Trzaskowski would cause drastic changes in Polish foreign policy, and a resignation from defending Polish national interests, which will take place at the cost of millions of Polish families,” the narrator told viewers.

The coverage of Mr Duda has been very different. On June 24, four days before the election’s first round, the evening news included a report enumerating the president’s achievements in office, featuring a smiling Mr Duda posing for photos with voters, accompanied by stirring music and footage of waving Polish flags.

“President Andrzej Duda defends the interests of ordinary Poles,” the narrator concluded, as the camera focused on a Duda 2020 placard. “No one is overlooked, regardless of where they are from and where they live. President Andrzej Duda listens to the voice, and opinion, of every Pole.”

Since the conservative-nationalist Law and Justice party, which backs Mr Duda, took power five years ago, it has frequently been accused of co-opting the public media. As the country gears up for what its likely to be a knife-edge election, the public broadcaster’s coverage has come in for renewed scrutiny.

The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human rights, the arm of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe that monitors elections, said after the first round of voting that TVP had “failed in its legal duty to provide balanced and impartial coverage” and had instead “acted as a campaign vehicle for the incumbent”, adding that “some of the reporting was charged with xenophobic and anti-Semitic undertones”.

Rafal Traskowski, mayor of Warsaw and presidential candidate: a TVP report questioned whether he had Polish interests at heart © Omar Marques/Getty

Meanwhile, analysis by the group Press-Service Monitoring Mediow found that, between June 3 and June 16, 97 per cent of the items on TVP’s flagship news show covering Mr Duda were positive, while 3 per cent were neutral. In Mr Trzaskowski’s case, 87 per cent were negative, and 13 per cent were neutral.

TVP did not respond to requests for comment. However, the Law and Justice party has long dismissed criticisms of the way state media has functioned on its watch. Earlier this year Piotr Glinski, the culture minister, conceded that the public media was “in some sense linked with the political authorities”. But he claimed that this was necessary to balance out an unbalanced private media market, and that previous governments had sought to exert similar influence.

Yet while critics of Law and Justice admit that the public media was not wholly objective before it took power, they say that under the party’s rule the situation has worsened significantly.

“About the ruling party you can only say good [things], about the opposition only bad [things] or nothing,” said Katarzyna Chojnowska, a journalist who worked for TVP Info until last year.

“Sometimes it’s little things. Statements of ruling party politicians are always at the beginning or end [of reports] and always the longest. [Statements from] the opposition are short, sometimes out of context.”

As the campaign has heated up, Law and Justice has also attacked privately owned media groups that have run stories critical of Mr Duda.

Last week, the president’s campaign hit out at Axel Springer, after Fakt, the biggest Polish tabloid, which it co-owns, ran a story criticising Mr Duda for pardoning a man who had sexually abused his daughter. (Mr Duda’s office said the pardon had been requested by the man’s family and related not to the original crime but to a restraining order preventing the man from seeing his family after his sentence had been served.)

This week, a Law and Justice MEP accused TVN, the biggest private broadcaster, owned by the US media group Discovery Communications, of being linked to the WSI, a former intelligence service that Law and Justice claims was linked to communists. The US ambassador, Georgette Mosbacher, rejected the claim, saying the MEP’s suggestion was “beneath a representative of the Polish people”.

The spats have raised concern that Law and Justice could renew its efforts to “repolonise” the private media after the election. The ruling party has long argued that too much of the Polish media market is in foreign hands and has periodically raised the prospect of redressing this.

However, Marek Tejchman, deputy editor of Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, a centrist daily, said that even if the government did not go as far as changing the law, there were other ways it could put pressure on independent media.

“I think it will be very hard to push for the legal changes that would allow repolonisation. It’s something that would trigger another fight with the EU,” he said. “I expect rising financial pressure on media that in a way resembles what happened in Hungary when foreign owners of media organisations were squeezed out. I would say that the Hungarians showed the way and I’m afraid we could go the same way.”