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Polish government dissolves public broadcasters in media row

Andrzej Duda.    (Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg)
By Wojciech Moskwa Bloomberg

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s cabinet placed public television and radio under liquidation after the president vetoed legislation providing subsidies to the state-run media amid a political standoff over the broadcasters.

Culture Minister Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz said on Wednesday that Telewizja Polska SA, Polskie Radio SA and news agency Polska Agencja Prasowa SA have been disbanded after a “suspension in financing” due to President Andrzej Duda’s veto. The liquidation status will help to efficiently restructure public media and avoid layoffs amid a lack of public funding, the ministry said.

Earlier, Tusk said he was willing to work with Duda and members of the opposition Law & Justice party in the future to create a “more balanced public media” landscape and a stable funding system replacing the current finance ministry subsidies. His cabinet’s decision last week to reshuffle the management ranks of public broadcasters fueled sit-in protests by Law & Justice officials, who lost their governing majority in an October election.

The premier, whose pro-European coalition took office two weeks ago, expressed disappointment in Duda’s decision to veto a government spending plan that included public media subsidies. The move put on display the willingness of the head of state to confront Tusk over legislation, signaling that the prime minister will struggle to undertake bigger projects.

“My expectations and hopes regarding the president’s actions have diminished a lot recently,” Tusk told reporters in Warsaw on Wednesday. Law & Justice has resisted because “for the last eight years they got used to treating public media as their own property,” he said.

The mounting deadlock underscores the challenge the new administration will have in dismantling structures built up over two terms of nationalist rule. Tusk’s top priority is to unwind judicial reforms that the European Union requires for Warsaw to tap almost €60 billion ($66.4 billion) in suspended aid, which will be more difficult without Duda’s support.

The EU’s top court has ruled that the Law & Justice-led government eroded rule-of-law standards by politicizing the judiciary.

‘Media Plurality’

In a protest against the media shakeup made without a contested panel overseeing public broadcasters, lawmakers from Law & Justice have for days occupied the headquarters of PAP, the national news agency. They’re also backing an alternative management board of public television, calling for “media plurality.”

International monitors and human rights organizations have long criticized public media coverage during Law & Justice’s tenure, saying the news organizations effectively became mouthpieces of the former ruling party. The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights said while the changes were necessary, the overhaul path that Tusk’s cabinet took “raises serious legal concerns.”

After calling Tusk’s media overhaul “anarchy,” Duda this week vetoed a government spending plan that sought to lift wages because it included a 3 billion-zloty ($765 million) subsidy for public broadcasters. The president’s then proposed his own bill, which also entails wage increases for teachers and other public-sector workers but without the media aid.

Under Polish law, lawmakers, the government as well as the head of state can send draft bills to parliament. Speaker Szymon Holownia, a Tusk ally, said the lower house will stick to its schedule and hold its next session on Jan. 10-11, despite requests from the president’s staff to fast-track Duda’s legislation.