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Artillery Row

The meaning of the battle for Polish Television

The “liberal” suspension of the rule of law should concern us all

On December 20, 2023, the transmission of TVP Info — Poland’s public broadcaster’s news channel — was abruptly cut off. It was immediately followed by TVP3, TVP Parliament and TVP World, as well as 16 regional stations. Stunned viewers all over the country witnessed presenters literally disappearing from screens mid-sentence. Meanwhile, private security guards barged unceremoniously into the TVP building, physically forcing their way into the station’s president’s office. Fresh political nominees of the new government arrived shortly after, accompanied by police. This, dear reader, is how the battle of TVP was won.

In case you’re wondering, why does this read like an account of your typical banana republic weekend coup, you probably deserve one more bit of information. The man who directed the op was the newly appointed Minister of Culture Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz. Truth be told, he’s not exactly known to have distinguished himself in the field of culture. He has, however, held the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Polish intelligence services. It was him that made sure all the backdoors were unlocked beforehand, and all the right plugs were pulled just in time. We call him the Colonel of Culture. It keeps things brief and accurate.

Now, you may rightfully ask — why did Poland’s new government resort to such harsh measures? Was it even legal? And finally, why should you — dear reader — even care?

The cyclical battle over the control of public media is a permanent fixture of political spectacle in Warsaw. It’s one of the original sins of democratic Poland. Every government after the 1989 transition from communist rule sought to gain control over TVP. It was therefore expected that the new liberal-left coalition, led by the international media darling Donald Tusk, would follow the script, deploy its friendly jurists, and engage in months of haggling to fill the public media with its own hand-picked nominees. After all, it took the previous national-conservative PiS government well over a year to get in full control — and it involved adopting at least 2 proper bills of law in Parliament.

But Tusk would have none of it. He decided to dispense with all customary formalities. Instead, a mixed force of private security, special service agents, and police simply seized what he needed in one ruthless swoop. The legality of it all? I could refer you to the public appeal of one of the oldest Polish NGOs, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, which simply obliterated the pseudo-legal justification produced by the government and called for immediate restoration of the constitutional order. But I think it’s better to give voice to the actors of the drama themselves. 

Minister of Justice Adam Bodnar explained: “We’re trying to restore the constitutional order, and we’re looking for some legal justification for it [my italics]”. “I have trust in Minister Sienkiewicz,” he added. Looking for legal justification? Why not just press a new bill through Parliament like the previous government? The reason was laid out clearly by Deputy Minister Maciej Gdula: “Changing the law could be difficult due to a potential veto by the President, yet we faced the popular expectation that TVP should be depoliticised”.

So, there you have it. To recap — the new government installed its own political nominees by force, based upon a completely bogus legal justification, and the excuses it used were… “depoliticization”, “trust” and “restoring the constitutional order”. Moreover, the democratically elected President, who actually suggested being open to compromise, is treated like an obstacle to be bypassed by illegal means. All of it in the name of — you guessed it — “the constitutional order”. Right…

By now, dear reader, you have every reason to feel confused. But if there’s one thing that should be clear, it is that the true explanation underpinning all that intellectual acrobatics cannot come from within the realm of law. And indeed, if one cuts through all the worthless pseudo-legal gibberish of Justice Minister Bodnar, and truly listens to the politicians of the governing coalition, what they’re really saying is that in order to save democracy, they need to suspend the rule of law. Why? Because — so they say — the situation in Poland demanded emergency powers. To put it in even more precise terms, they demand to be granted the right to designate and determine the limits of … the exception.

The concept of the “state of exception” was conceived in the 1920s by the prominent German jurist Carl Schmitt. It defines a special condition granting the sovereign a prerogative to transcend the rule of law in the name of a higher public good. And that is precisely the prerogative Justice Minister Bodnar demands be granted to the current Polish government. According to him, the state of emergency exists and normal rules simply do not apply. Does he have any legitimacy to do that? None. But does anybody care? Why don’t we see any mass protests? What is the public good — that glorified end that supposedly justifies all those nasty means?

According to the liberals, TVP has simply become a PiS propaganda platform. It has not only betrayed its statutory mission of impartiality but went as far as engaging into vicious and borderline obsessive attacks on the opposition. And it just had to be stopped. So, is the charge valid? Absolutely! Frankly, TVP was always partisan and its political masters — including Donald Tusk during his previous term as PM — made sure its reporting was considerably biased in their favor. But what PiS did to it was something different and veritably atrocious. Suffice it to say, even the moderate wing of PiS voters wouldn’t ever watch it. A significant part of the PiS electorate supported the party despite rather than because of what it aired.

And here, dear reader, lies the paradoxical reason why you don’t see any mass protests on the streets of Poland these days. To put it bluntly — TVP simply doesn’t matter all that much. The vast, rich and vibrant Polish legacy media scene provided people with a variety of alternatives, while the booming development of nontraditional Internet-based outlets led many to stop watching television altogether.

So, you may rightfully ask, if Poles themselves don’t seem to care all that much, why the hell should you? Well, for starters, the pivotal question to be asked is — is Tusk done? Was the battle for TVP the proverbial “it”? Or are we about to witness an escalating cascade of equally ruthless institutional takeovers extending beyond the media into the judiciary and other realms of the state? A potentially devastating constitutional crisis in a NATO frontline member, right in the middle of intensifying standoff with Russia, is something to avoid.

If the liberals and the left are doing what they accuse PiS of many times over, well — where does it end?

But there’s another, more general reason, why you should care. It is because what happens in Poland can tell us something important about the condition of democracy in more universal terms. Let me explain. What Donald Tusk and his acolytes would like you to believe is that what you’re witnessing is a Manichaean struggle between pro- and anti-democratic forces in Poland. So, in a frenzy of self-righteousness, they simply expect you to turn just a little bit of a blind eye whenever you see the liberal (“good”) side fouling the evil conservative opponent. “One cannot clean up a mess without getting his hands dirty” they frequently say. It is, according to them, self-evident that not only their hands but also hearts and intentions were clean and clear to begin with. But, even if that rhetoric alone doesn’t raise your suspicions — which it should — and you assume what they say to be true — which it isn’t — where does it lead? If the liberals and the left are doing what they accuse PiS of, many times over — well, where does it end?

In his 2014 Democracy in Retreat Joshua Kurlantzick warned against the danger of potentially destructive, authoritarian responses by the middle-class based “liberal” leaders to politics of popular mobilisation of the sort which led PiS to power. Within the framework proposed by Kurlantzick, it is the “populists” that may shake the foundations of the constitutional order, but it’s actually the “liberals” who come after them that deal a fatal blow to the rule of law by suspending the constitution in the name of “saving democracy”. And that should sound vaguely familiar to you by now. Keep it in mind, dear reader, when you follow the political drama unfolding in Poland in this young 2024.

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