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25/09/2016

Polish President signs controversial media law

Central Europe

Polish President signs controversial media law

Andrzej Duda [Website of the President of Poland]

Polish President Andrzej Duda yesterday (7 January) signed into law a controversial bill handing the conservative government control of state media, despite EU concern and condemnation from rights watchdogs.

Critics see the move as the latest bid by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) to consolidate power and render ineffective any organ that could keep it in check since taking power late last year after eight years in the opposition.

“It’s important to the president that state media be impartial, objective and credible,” presidential spokeswoman Malgorzata Sadurska told reporters, claiming that the media had been flouting those guidelines.

“That’s why the president signed into law the radio and television bill” that the conservative-dominated parliament approved last month, she said.

Under the new law, senior figures in public radio and television will be appointed – and can be sacked – by the treasury minister. They will no longer be hired through contests organised by the National Broadcasting Council.

>> Read: EU executive voices concern over planned Polish media law

>> Read: Press organisations file complaint against Polish media law

The new legislation will also see the current managers and supervisory board members of Poland’s public broadcasters fired with immediate effect.

“It’s the first step in a media takeover. I’m afraid the next laws will somehow limit the freedom of non-state media,” said Katarzyna Lubnauer, a lawmaker from the liberal Nowoczesna party.

The PiS had earlier said it plans to turn the PAP news agency and public television and radio – all currently state-owned businesses – into national cultural institutions like the opera, or Warsaw’s National Museum.

The governing party, led by former Prime Minister Jaros?aw Kaczy?ski, already raised alarm in recent months by replacing the heads of the EU member’s secret services and reforming the constitutional court, the latter despite mass protests and opposition complaints that the changes threatened judicial independence.

Duda, who was elected in May and is backed by the PiS, also signed into law Thursday a public service bill that allows the conservatives to hire top state institution officials without holding competitive exams — another measure slammed by the opposition.

Dismay

The Council of Europe, the continent’s top human rights watchdog, had urged Duda against signing the media law.

The director general of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), Ingrid Deltenre, said in a statement she was “dismayed by the president’s decision”.

“The fact that the government refused any discussion, or to accept any expert legal advice from the European Commission, Council of Europe or other media expert organisations, appears to reflect its overall attitude towards European institutions and fundamental democratic values,” she said.

French Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin said Poland’s new media legislation “profoundly goes against” Europe’s “underlying values”.

According to Polish media there is another bill in the works that would terminate the contracts of all state media employees.

They could then be rehired if their positions and they themselves were deemed useful.

The government’s legal manoeuvres have prompted escalating warnings from the European Commission that it could intervene, including two letters from its vice president, Frans Timmermans, asking Warsaw for information.

In an unprecedented move, the Commission is set to debate the state of rule of law in Poland on 13 January, which could lead to potentially punitive measures (see background).

>>Read: EU takes unprecedented step against Poland over rule of law

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker yesterday denied that Brussels was unfairly targeting Poland over its government’s controversial changes.

“Let’s not overdramatise. It’s an important issue but we have to have friendly and good relations with Poland,” he said before news broke that Duda had signed the media bill.

“Our approach is very constructive – we are not bashing Poland.”

Duda, a former MEP, is coming on his first visit to Brussels as head of state on 18 January.

>>Read: Polish president comes to Brussels with heavy agenda

Background

Since 2009 when the Lisbon Treaty entered into force, the European Commission has been confronted on several occasions with crisis events in some member states, which revealed specific rule of law problems.

Such examples is the handling of the Roma issue by the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, attempts to impose one-party rule in Hungary and an attempted crackdown on the judiciary in Romania.

Under Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, serious breaches to the values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights by a member state can result in a suspension or loss of voting rights in the EU Council of Ministers.

If article 7 is activated, this would mean that the country in breach would temporarily lose its EU membership rights. But before such a decision can be taken, the Council shall hear the member state in question and may address recommendations.

But as the Article 7 is described as a ‘nuclear bomb’ which may never been used, the previous EU Commission under José Manuel Barroso introduced a "pre-Article 7 procedure", which follows three stages. Those are:

  • Commission assessment: As a first step, the Commission collects and examines all the relevant information and assesses whether there are clear indications of a systemic threat to the rule of law. If the Commission makes such assessment, it will initiate a dialogue with the country concerned, by sending its "rule of law opinion". The country concerned then has the possibility to respond.
  • Commission Recommendation: In a second stage, unless the matter has already been resolved, the Commission issues a "rule of law recommendation" to the country concerned. It recommends that the member state solves the problems identified within a fixed time limit and informs the Commission of the steps taken to that effect. The Commission then makes its recommendation public.
  • Follow-up to the Commission Recommendation: In a third stage, the Commission monitors the follow-up given by the member state to the recommendation. If there is no satisfactory follow-up within the time limit set, the Commission can resort to one of the mechanisms set out in Article 7 of the EU treaty.

Before the Lisbon Treaty entered into force, the EU has imposed sanctions only once against a member state. In 2000, 14 countries of the then 15-member EU reacted to the entrance of Jörg Haider's far-right Austrian Freedom Party into the Austrian government by freezing bilateral relations with the country.

Timeline

  • 13 January: Commission to decide whether to open a punitive process against Poland.
  • 18 January: Polish President comes for first official visit to Brussels.