Beata Klimkiewicz, Associate Professor at the Institute of Journalism, Media and Social Communication, examines recent changes to public service media law in Poland and argues that whilst reform of Polish public service media is needed, this should be achieved not through direct political means, but rather through greater public involvement.
The political battle about public service media (PSM) is not new in Poland, what is new is the scale and speed
Recent media regulatory changes in Poland elicited strong reactions from international institutions and the European Union at the beginning of January 2016. In his letter to the Polish President Andrzej Duda, Thorbjørn Jagland, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, expressed particular concern about the new law “and the impact it may have on the integrity and independence of public service media, as a vital condition for genuine democracy”. Dunja Miljatović, OSCE Representative on the Freedom of the Media, warned that the controversial new Act gives the Government “direct control over management positions in the PSB.” On 13 January, the European Commission took an unprecedented move to launch an investigation into the rule of law in Poland.
Neither performance nor content, rather appointment
What is the context and the content of the new media law? On 30 December 2015, the Sejm (the lower house of the Polish Parliament) passed the so-called “Small Media Act” (Mała Ustawa Medialna), which amended the 1992 Broadcasting Act. The 2015 Act entered into force at great speed, after being signed by the President and published on 7 January 2016. Arguments for the 2015 Act from both government officials and the President emphasised the need to improve impartiality, reinforce the ‘national character’ of PSM and provide greater exposure to ‘patriotic values’. Yet, in its current form, the 2015 Act only contains articles relating to the appointment procedure of the Polish public service media, and neglects both the quality of PSM performance and how it functions. In fact, the Act comprises only 4 Articles in total which introduce the following changes in the appointment procedure and employment structure of the public service media:
- Members of the Board of Management, including the President of the Board of Management and members of the Supervisory Board, will by appointed by the Minister of the Treasury (Article 1)
- Upon the entering into force of the current Act, the terms shall be shortened and mandates shall expire for the current members of the Management and Supervisory Boards of PSM (Article 2)
Article 1 – although foreseen as temporary (the 2015 Act is due to expire by 30 June 2016) – creates a direct link between the Government (in this case, the Minister of the Treasury) and the public service media, extending the power of political control into the PSM’s employment structure. The effects of this direct political power were seen shortly after the enactment of the new Act: both Telewizja Polska (TVP) and Polskie Radio (PR) have witnessed massive layoffs of their management and supervisory board members, and also large numbers of journalists, some after 20 years of experience in public service.
An insatiable appetite for political control
Why is public service media so important for the political elites in Poland (regardless of political affiliation)? Unlike in some other Central and Eastern European countries, Polish public service media – and in particular television – occupy significant audience shares. TVP has been the dominant player in the TV market, commanding between 35-50% of the national audience share since 1992. According to the 2015 study News Diversity in Poland from the Users’ Perspective by Indicator for the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT), TVP is the most frequently used source for news by Polish media users, although young users (18–25 years old) are more frequently turning to the private commercial TV channel TVN, to Facebook and to the news portal onet.pl. There is a strong political belief in the ability to influence public opinion through PSM, in particular by television.
Reform is needed, but so is a thorough and inclusive public debate
Public service media in Poland certainly needs reform. There is broad agreement among journalists, media professionals, politicians and the wider public that the current situation should be changed. So far, no attempts have truly improved the PSM conditions. The 1992 Broadcasting Act currently in force has already been amended 19 times, with the ‘Small Media Act’ being the latest in a long line of amendments. The majority of previous amendments to articles concerning public service broadcasters dealt with outlining their mission and performance requirements. However, none of these amendments altered the current powers of the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT) to supervise PSM and appoint its management and supervisory boards. The current ‘Small Media Act’ has interrupted this regulatory continuity, with very limited consultation, in fact excluding the broader public. There is no doubt that a thorough debate including journalists and media professionals should take place before any such change. The 2015 ‘Small Media Act’ stands as a portent of greater PSM reform (a possible ‘Big Media Act’?) planned by the Law and Justice (PiS) governing party.
This larger and more substantial reform of PSM has not been specified yet, but there are several dimensions discussed so far. First, the normative one: there is an idea to make PSM ‘national’ which would entail a slight change in the form of organisation and type of ownership. So far, the PSM function as joint stock companies of the State Treasury, but this status might be changed into public companies of the State Treasury. Second, financial: currently, most PSM operations are financed through advertising, while licence fees amount to only 20% of TV revenues. A solution to address this disproportionate funding might be some form of media fee, automatically charged to a consumer’s electricity bills. Third, the supervisory and accountability dimension: there is a proposal to establish a specific PSM Council that would take on some of the responsibilities currently held by KRRiT, in particular those related to assessing PSM performance and appointing members of management and supervisory boards.
The most important conditions for any PSM are independence and professional autonomy, as they provide important grounding for social trust and strengthening relations with the audience. This includes in particular financial and political independence, which can only be increased with greater involvement of the public in financing (funding should come predominantly from licence fees), and political independence and professional autonomy (guaranteed by the relevant supervisory and appointment procedures).
This article gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics.