Brussels Paying the Price for Complacence – Freedom of Media in Poland
Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw – all are major Polish cities that saw protests on Saturday held to protect freedom of speech after the new conservative government led by Law and Justice (PiS) began reshaping the Polish media scene. The 20,000 strong protest is organized by the Committee for the Defense of Democracies, a movement that emerged in November in response to the PiS redrawing the Constitutional Court. The PiS recently passed legislation that enables the ruling party to appoint judges and change the procedure of decision-making.
After initial alterations to the Constitutional Court and secret services, the order came to reform, or effectively suppress, public broadcasters. Despite opposition from Brussels, the new president of Poland, Andrzej Duda, signed a temporary law regarding media which was set to expire in June. The novel legislation mandates an automatic suspension of those with management positions in public television, radio, and all state news agencies. From hereon, all managerial appointments for the aforementioned media will be by decree of the Minister of Finance, thus placing mainstream media under direct state control. In response, Brussels straps on the pads and prepares for diplomatic confrontation with Poland. This recalls a confrontation that Brussels lost back in 2011 with Hungarian President Viktor Orban and likely will lose again after setting a precedent of lethargy and flabbiness.
“Measures taken by the Polish government contradict media pluralism and independence of the public service, as well as democracy in Poland. These measures are in clear contradiction with the fundamental values of the EU,” concluded the European Federation of Journalists in a letter to European Media Commissioner Gunter Oettinger. Oettinger is not alone in invoking sanctions against Warsaw. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has convened a debate to be held on the 13th of January on rule of law in Poland, which will be the first step in the procedure provided by a mechanism adopted in 2014 that has yet to be applied. The said mechanism relates to any ‘systematic threats to rule of law and other common European values‘. In the initial stage, the Commission gathers information and assesses whether there are clear indications of basic European values at risk. If dialogue between the EC and member at hand does not yield desirable results, the Commission may punish the country by invoking Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty and take away the right to vote in European institutions. Although there have been numerous instances where groundwork was set for Article 7 – from French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s treatment of Roma to Orban’s illiberal Hungary, no country has ever been punished.
For all those kicking and screaming over what many consider the most consolidated democracy in post-socialist Eastern Europe, this is not the first instance of backsliding in the region. Soon after coming to power in 2010, Hungary’s Orban’s Fidesz government created the National Media and Infocommunications Authority in order to monitor and, more importantly, establish a “consciousness” for Hungarian media outlets. Furthermore, the Authority’s task is to control the work of journalists – they are obliged to report “steadily and realistically”, respecting Christian, national, and patriotic values. It is within the jurisdiction of the Authority’s Media Council to dictate what fits these guidelines and what does not, as well as offering the possibility to formally sanction recalcitrant journalists through various fines and by withholding finances. Radio and television news shows supporting political opposition nears extinction in Hungary. Opposition to Fidesz is almost exclusively labeled or reported as the rhetoric of corrupt post-communist political opponents.
What sanctions came from the wigs of Schuman square to Orban’s kulturkampf? The answer: wimp-ish rhetoric and a few symbolic protests as Hungary proceeded to serve a full term presiding over Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2011. There were threats from the EC of possibly reverting to Article 7, but such views failed to make it passed the Council doors. Failure to assert order has reduced one of the EU’s few correctional mechanisms from Dirty Harry’s Model 29 to a hollow Lego piece. Arguably the “harshest” response to Orban’s media oversight from Brussels came in July 2013. “The European Parliament adopted a resolution saying it was concerned that Hungary’s public service broadcasting was controlled by a centralized system that took decisions without public scrutiny.” The EU does retain the right to suspend development funds to disobedient members such as in 2008 when Bulgaria was denied 500 million Euros of aid after failing to combat corruption. However, PiS’ Poland need not fear similar repercussions. It is unlikely Juncker would garner support for the suspension of funds for one of Europe’s largest and fastest growing economies.
While Brussels continues to huff and puff, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo recently announced that Poland will not be adhering to Union quotas and will accept a mere 100 refugees instead of the 7000 agreed to by the previous Sejm. Fear of refugees and their alleged threat to Polish families, paired with the promise of upward mobility for the lowest strata and strong support for doctrines of the Catholic Church, resulted in a winning combination for PiS in elections last October. In addition, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaszynski does not shy away from his support of Viktor Orban, who informally visited Poland last week. Kaczynski is on the record for exclaiming, “he was deeply convinced that the day will come when you (the previous government) will fail and you will have Budapest in Warsaw”. Orban has already announced he will oppose any sanctions against the Polish within the EU.
When the EU failed to handle Orban five years ago, an irreversible precedent was set for a new wave of backsliding. Seemingly, the only check on PiS is left to the Polish electorate themselves; abandoned by a childish EC waving a sword just a tad too big. If Orban effectively managed to assert control over Hungarian media and get away with a “concern”, then what is there to stop Kaczynski and Szydlo?