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Home » Poland’s hard-right government wages war on a US-owned network

Poland’s hard-right government wages war on a US-owned network

Every night in Poland, The News goes up against The Facts. The News (Wiadomości in Polish) is the newscast on TVP, the state broadcaster, which, in recent years, has been widely accused of being little more than a government mouthpiece. The Facts (Fakty in Polish) is the nightly newscast on TVN, a private network owned by the US media behemoth Warner Bros. Discovery, which is often critical of the hard-right government. Once The News is over, TVP airs another show—Jak oni kłamią, which translates as How They Lie—with the explicit aim of countering “TVN’s manipulations” on The Facts

It’s not just the state broadcaster that attacks TVN these days—other arms of the Polish state do, too. Politicians call the network a stooge for Russia; Jarosław Kaczyński, a powerful leader of the governing Law and Justice party, recently likened a TVN reporter to a “representative of the Kremlin.” Earlier this year—after TVN broadcast a program alleging that Pope John Paul II, who was Polish and is still widely revered in the heavily Catholic country, knew about child sexual abuse within the Polish church—the foreign ministry accused TVN of “hybrid war” tactics and summoned the US ambassador, Mark Brzezinski (son of Zbigniew and brother of MSNBC’s Mika). Sometimes, such complaints harden into formal investigations by Poland’s broadcast regulator, as happened late last year, after TVN reported that government allies had misrepresented evidence around the Smolensk air disaster, a 2010 plane crash on Russian soil in which Kaczyński’s brother Lech, then the president, was killed. (Kaczyński and others have insisted that Russia blew the plane up.)

Over the summer, Deadline reported that WBD “insiders” in Poland feared that the regulator was plotting to use the war in Ukraine as a smoke screen to shutter TVN or force WBD to divest. There’s no formal indication that such an existential threat is imminent. But the regulator is severely dragging out TVN’s application to renew the license of its main, free-to-air broadcast channel. Previously, when TVN was subjected to a similar delay around a license application for its paid rolling news channel, TVN24, it applied for a Dutch license, guaranteeing that TVN24 would stay on air under European Union rules. (The regulator eventually renewed TVN24’s Polish license.) But no such backup option is available for TVN’s main channel—which airs Fakty—without making viewers pay for that, too.

TVN’s plight is one part of a wider government war on the independent media that has only intensified as Poles prepare to vote in parliamentary elections this weekend. Last month, a coalition of European press-freedom groups undertook a mission to Poland and reported back on “intensifying efforts to assert control and influence over large sections of the media,” citing, among other things, the government’s weaponization of both the state broadcaster and the broadcast regulator. This phenomenon touches far more than just TVN: the regulator, for example, recently slapped a private radio station with a hefty fine for reporting that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky traveled through Poland without informing its security services. (Neither the regulator nor the state broadcaster replied to my requests for comment.)

Key to this wider attack on the media has been the government’s push for “re-Polonization,” or the idea that Poland is so encircled by external enemies—not only Russia, but also Germany and other Western countries—that the media must be brought back under domestic ownership (EU rules be damned). This story, too, is bigger than TVN: in 2020, for instance, a state oil company took over a large regional newspaper chain that had been owned by Germans. Still, TVN was the target of arguably the most concerted re-Polonization push so far—one that reverberated internationally even as it ultimately failed—and is now again under attack. 

And, since its founding in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, TVN has also been central to a different story—the emergence of Poland, as the recent press-freedom mission put it, as “one of the most robust and pluralistic media markets in central and eastern Europe.” For now, that pluralism survives. TVN and other bastions of the independent press in Poland won’t let it slide away without a fight. But a Law and Justice win in the coming elections would represent a significant threat. 

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As Adam Szynol,
a professor in the Institute of Journalism and Social Communication at the University of Wrocław, puts it, the end of the Cold War was a “breakthrough point” for the media industry in central and eastern Europe. Foreign investors were suddenly able to buy in; according to Szynol, many Polish newspapers were taken over by German and Norwegian firms. When it came to electronic media Poland applied some limits; a law passed in 1992 limited foreign investors to a third of shares in Polish broadcasters. 

In 1997, Mariusz Walter and Jan Wejchert, two Polish businessmen, and Bruno Valsangiacomo, a Swiss colleague, founded TVN. (According to Notes from Poland, the trio’s company was established under communism and Walter worked for state TV in the same period. Recently, government allies have weaponized this history to claim that TVN is a pro-Soviet enterprise; in 2021, the network sued the deputy leader of Law and Justice over one such claim.) At first, TVN did not have a license to broadcast nationally and had a modest market share. Over time, however, it became more dominant, helped, in part, by importing popular foreign entertainment formats such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (Milionerzy) and Big Brother (Wielki Brat). 

From the early days of TVN, its offer of independent TV news, in a market dominated by public broadcasting, was central to its identity. Here, too, the network drew on foreign influences. Tomasz Lis, an early anchor on Fakty, had previously been a Washington correspondent on Polish public television. “He was trying to be an anchorman, which was not very common in Poland,” Szynol recalls. With propitious timing, weeks before 9/11, TVN launched TVN24, its rolling news channel; it, too, was a new phenomenon in the Polish media landscape. After 2004, when Poland joined the European Union, the rules around foreign investment in broadcasters were relaxed. The French media giant Vivendi bought a stake in TVN in 2011. In 2015, the company transferred to majority American ownership when it was taken over by Scripps Networks Interactive. Three years later, Scripps was bought out by Discovery, which merged into WBD last year.

By the time TVN got its first US owner in Scripps, dark clouds were already brewing for Poland’s independent media. Law and Justice came to power later the same year and quickly sought to assert control over public media; in early 2016, Marc Herman wrote for CJR that Poland had become the “canary in the coal mine” for the influence of nativist parties on Europe’s press. In an interview around the same time, Jarosław Kaczyński expressed his regret that—during his party’s previous stint in power, from 2005 to 2007—it had enjoyed “no media protection,” including from public media “which were supposedly ours.” The average Pole, he added, assesses the world “not on the basis of what is but on the basis of what he sees on television.”

Attacks on TVN followed. In 2017, the broadcast regulator fined the network for its coverage of anti-government protests; according to The Guardian, the regulator relied on a report prepared by a contributor to a magazine called Exorcist Monthly, who accused TVN of “calling almost directly for the collapse of the legal order of the state.” In 2019, police raided the home of a TVN reporter who had gone undercover to report on a neo-Nazi meeting, accusing the reporter of spreading Nazi ideology. In 2020, the state broadcaster ran a series of programs calling TVN a “fake news factory,” among other things. The then-US ambassador came to TVN’s defense.

Then came a major escalation. In the summer of 2021, the government rammed legislation through parliament aimed at tightening foreign-ownership rules in the broadcast sector; officials said they were safeguarding against Russian or Chinese subversion, but the bill was widely perceived as having been crafted to hobble TVN. The US and the EU both criticized the bill as chilling to foreign investment; meanwhile, protesters took to the streets to oppose it. In the end, after months of messy political wrangling, Andrzej Duda, the president, vetoed the measure. TVN lived to fight another day as a US-owned company.

The government has continued to pressure the network, however, including through the recent investigations into its coverage and the current licensing imbroglio. If officials can’t force WBD to divest its Polish business, they can at least accuse TVN of subversive behavior; as Szynol puts it, “if you want to hit the dog, you will find a stick.” Last year, the Polish Senate, where the opposition currently has a majority, appointed Tadeusz Kowalski, an academic, as one of the five representatives on the broadcast regulator. In an email, Kowalski told me that he has repeatedly attempted to force action on TVN’s license, but has so far consistently been outvoted. In Kowalski’s view, the regulator within which he sits “is being used to suppress criticism and freedom of expression.” 

TVN remains
broadly trusted and influential. Earlier this year, the Reuters Institute’s annual
Digital News Report found that TVN’s news operations had a greater reach than any rival network, radio station, or print newspaper, and that a significantly higher proportion of respondents (47 percent) trust it than the state broadcaster, which was the least trusted news brand measured (at 28 percent). WBD’s Polish arm is the company’s third biggest globally, after its operations in the US and the UK. And TVN is its biggest news division after CNN.

The government’s current stalling over the network’s license could just be a harassment tactic, an election-year stick in the eye. But even on those terms, it has harmful consequences. And the threats the network faces don’t seem likely to go away anytime soon. Law and Justice are ahead in the polls ahead of this weekend’s elections. The opposition has cast the contest in existential terms; recently, hundreds of thousands of Poles marched chanting for democracy and the constitution. As Politico’s Jan Cienski has noted, however, even if opposition parties win, they will struggle to cut out the institutional “growths” that Law and Justice put in place.

Cienski also notes that Law and Justice will face constraints if it retains power, not least EU rules; as I wrote last week, these will likely soon include a package of measures designed to bolster the independence of the media in countries where it is under threat. Szynol, however, is pessimistic: if Law and Justice win, he says, key independent outlets could disappear—including, possibly, TVN, at least in its current form. So, too, is Kowalski, the Senate-appointed member of the regulator. “I am afraid that if the current government wins the elections and is able to maintain power, the activities of independent and critical media will be seriously threatened,” he said. “The authoritarian tendency is clearly visible.”

Other notable stories:

  • The Atlantic’s Yair Rosenberg interviewed his friend Amir Tibon, a journalist for Haaretz who lives on a kibbutz near the Israel-Gaza border that was invaded by Hamas over the weekend; Tibon, his wife, and their two young children survived by hunkering down in a safe room for ten hours until Tibon’s father rescued them. Meanwhile, CNN’s Oliver Darcy spoke with Esther Solomon, the editor in chief of Haaretz, about the difficulties of covering the crisis while keeping her staff safe. The Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr reported on a “scramble” among US TV networks to get reporters and anchors into Israel amid flight cancellations and other logistical challenges. And the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that three Palestinian media workers—Mohammad El-Salhi, Ibrahim Mohammad Lafi, and Mohammad Jarghoun—were killed while they were out reporting.
  • A coalition of news organizations including the Post, the German magazine Der Spiegel, and the French investigative site Mediapart report that the government of Vietnam tried to plant Predator, a potent spyware tool, on the phones of US politicians, think tank experts, and several journalists from CNN—right around the time, earlier this year, that the country was negotiating a major cooperation pact with the US. Vietnamese hackers tried to induce the targets to click on compromised links via X (formerly Twitter), but it does not appear that they were successful in infecting the targets’ devices. The story was released as part of the Predator Files, an international investigation into the use of the tool that was coordinated by the group European Investigative Collaborations.
  • Yesterday, on his first day as the new CEO of CNN, Mark Thompson addressed staff in a video message and warned that the network needs to double down on charting a digital transition. “TV is also too dominant at CNN and digital too marginal,” he said. “This company is still nowhere near ready for the future.” Thompson also addressed how CNN should approach coverage of US politics going forward, telling its journalists to “not second-guess ourselves or get distracted by complicated arguments about balance or whataboutism or false equivalency.” He added that they should “cover political news proportionately and fairly, but not be frightened of our own shadows.”
  • In the UK, a fabricated audio clip purporting to show Keir Starmer—the leader of the opposition Labour Party, which is currently favored to win elections slated for next year—abusing his staff has spread widely on X in recent days. This “first deepfake moment” for British politics, as Politico describes it, has alarmed experts in artificial intelligence and disinformation; per Politico, the experts warn that, as things stand, “no regulator is responsible for stopping” election lies, and that recent legislation aimed at neutering a variety of online harms “barely begins to tackle the problem” of fake content.
  • And tomorrow, The New Republic’s Alex Shephard will sit down with a trio of media-watchers—Tara McGowan, Don Lemon, and Jay Rosen—to discuss how the media might better cover Donald Trump as 2024 approaches. “We have seen some improvement on the slop mess the media made of his 2016 campaign,” Shephard writes in a preview—but it is still “not clear at all that the press has an understanding of how to cover Trump as what he truly is: a singular threat he poses to American democracy.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

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