The headquarters of TVP in Warsaw. Poland's new media law moves toward giving the government greater powers over the public broadcaster. (Reuters/Slawomir Kaminski)
The headquarters of TVP in Warsaw. Poland's new media law moves toward giving the government greater powers over the public broadcaster. (Reuters/Slawomir Kaminski)

Will the EU’s actions speak louder than its words on Poland’s new media law?

On January 13, the European Commission–the so-called guardian of EU treaties–will meet in Brussels to debate a troubling law passed in Poland today that, according to reports, paves the way for the government to take control of public service TV and radio.

In a move deemed by many as a threat to core EU values, in particular press freedom, the temporary law terminates the management of the public broadcaster TVP and Polish Radio, gives the treasury minister the right to appoint and sack its directors, and limits the number of members sitting on the public broadcaster’s supervisory and management boards. The law will last until June, when new legislation covering Poland’s public broadcasters is expected to take its place, The Associated Press reported.

The spokesman for President Andrzej Duda justified the bill by denouncing what he described as the previous liberal government’s “one-party control” of public media and a lack of real pluralism. In response to the law, four directors of state TV channels and programs resigned last week and “state radio aired the EU and Polish national anthems before news broadcasts to stress attachment to EU values,” the AP wrote.

The European Commission’s swift reaction to the law contrasts with the caution and procrastination that prevailed five years ago when the newly elected conservative Fidesz government adopted similar laws in Hungary. Poland’s actions will be a major test of the EU’s determination to affirm its values and use its rights provided under the treaties to bring a member state back in line.

The January 13 meeting should clarify whether the situation in Warsaw justifies a trigger of the EU’s so-called rule of law mechanism. The system, adopted in 2014, is meant to tackle threats to EU values. It consists of a three-step procedure: a commission assessment of the state of the rule of law, a commission recommendation to the member state, and a follow up of the state’s response. In case of non-compliance, the commission can resort to Article 7 of the treaty, known as the “nuclear option,” which can lead to the suspension or loss of voting rights in the Council of Ministers: a sort of capital sentence for member states.

The Polish challenge stunned Brussels. True, the newly elected Law and Justice party was viewed by many as Europhobic, illiberal, nationalistic, and ultraconservative, but the way Warsaw ignored the warnings of the commission has been received as a provocation and a mark of impudence by many in Brussels.

The conversion of Poland’s Constitutional Court into a ruling party-aligned institution and the purge of the public broadcaster confirmed fears among EU officials, already incensed by the illiberal policies of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, that another EU member state is determined to eliminate any form of checks and balances to push its political agenda.

An election poster for Poland's Law and Justice party. The European Commission is due to debate whether the new media law goes against EU values, including press freedom. (Reuters/Kacper Pempel)
An election poster for Poland’s Law and Justice party. The European Commission is due to debate whether the new media law goes against EU values, including press freedom. (Reuters/Kacper Pempel)

Despite the Polish government’s proclamations of its fairness, to most observers the attack on the independence of the public broadcaster contradicts a number of fundamental EU principles, in particular Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, which states that, “The union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights;” Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which enshrines media freedom and media pluralism; and the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, which is committed to safeguarding the independence of national media regulators.

The outcry, including from EU officials, has been massive. On December 30, when Poland’s lower house of parliament voted in the law, the first vice-president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, sent two letters to Warsaw. “Freedom and pluralism of the media are crucial for a pluralist society in a member state respectful of the common values on which the union is founded,” he wrote. President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz also expressed his outrage and even likened events in Poland to a “coup d’état” in a radio interview, while in a January 3 interview with the German center-right daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung the commissioner in charge of the media, Günther Oettinger, argued for the activation of the rule of law mechanism and close monitoring of Poland.

On December 30, CPJ joined the European Federation of Journalists, the Association of European Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and the European Broadcasting Union in denouncing the measures against the public media in a letter and sent an alert to the Council of Europe’s platform to promote the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists. The platform, which CPJ joined last October, acts as a public warning mechanism and way to pressure Council of Europe member states to respond effectively to attacks on the press.

In a January 5 letter to Poland’s president, the Council of Europe’s secretary general Thorbjørn Jagland referred to the letter from CPJ and other press freedom groups when he expressed his concern about the impact the media law “may have on the integrity and independence of public service media.” The council’s commissioner for human rights, Nils Muižnieks, also asked the president not to sign the law. “The law worryingly places public service media under direct government control by giving the latter the powers to appoint and dismiss the members of the supervisory and management boards of public service television and radio,” he wrote. “These arrangements contradict Council of Europe standards, which notably require that public service media remain independent of political or economic interference.”

It remains to be seen if these principled reactions will be effective or will fizzle out. Poland, skeptics note, is a major EU member state and has increased its influence in Brussels in recent years. The Law and Justice party, as The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Crawford wrote last October, “can now position themselves as the natural party of Polish government … for a good time to come.” It also has allies in other countries, such as Hungary, whose leaders have expressed hostility to the “liberalism” of the EU and what they view as its intention to impose common values on all member states.

The optimists underline that, contrary to Hungary’s Fidesz party, the Law and Justice party does not belong to the European People’s Party–the biggest political group in the European Parliament–but to the eurosceptic and Tory-dominated European Conservatives and Reformists Group. It does not have the support of key EU member states, in particular Germany, which are tired of governments bashing an EU that generously subsidizes them. No one forgets however that the real power within the EU lies with the member states, and there is no guarantee that a commission’s recommendation to trigger the rule of law mechanism would be endorsed by a sufficient number of countries.

On January 13, the European Commission will risk a lot. According to the independent news website EUObserver, it has already backtracked and downplayed the significance of the meeting after a number of commissioners allegedly pleaded for more caution. Today, the president of the commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said the EU was “unlikely to trigger the rule of law mechanism over the Polish media law.” No one doubts that the commission’s margin of maneuver is narrow. However, if it decides to brusquely back off it will have further undermined its credibility, as well as those fundamental values, including press freedom, which are hailed as the silver thread of the European project.

[Reporting from Brussels]