Piotr Farfal's Poland

WARSAW, Poland — Piotr Farfal, the controversial head of Polish public television, didn’t come to the job lacking a background in the media.

As a young man he was the publisher of a tiny newsletter called “Front.” His editorial line? “We don’t tolerate cowards, snitches and Jews.” The newsletter was aimed at local skinheads, nationalists and neofascists.

That sort of past — which Farfal has tried to explain away as a youthful indiscretion — has not been enough to prevent him from becoming one of the most powerful men in Polish broadcasting.

His presence is an increasing embarrassment to the government of Donald Tusk, the prime minister and leader of the centrist Civic Platform party, and to the country. Recently the Franco-German cultural television channel broke off cooperation with Polish state television over Farfal’s presence, saying “he does not share our values.”

Open Republic, an organization aimed at stamping out xenophobia and anti-Semitism issued a letter calling it “a shameful and highly damaging thing that a former neofascist is at the head of [public television].”

Farfal got the top job in a rather unexpected fashion. He was plucked from obscurity in 2006 as a 28-year-old activist linked with the nationalist League of Polish Families, and was named deputy director of public television by the previous government of the right-wing Law and Justice party, which had formed a coalition with the League.

At the time, Law and Justice had just taken power and was purging public television of leftists and anyone opposed to their moral revolution, which aimed to stamp out corruption and people tainted by ties to communism from public life.

Farfal’s unorthodox past was revealed almost immediately after he was named. He put up a bit of a fuss, but essentially retreated from the public eye for almost two years. After Law and Justice’s defeat in 2007 parliamentary elections, the governing board of public television the party's officials had named remained in place despite the change of government — a break in Polish tradition where the new government tends to immediately move to gain control of the public broadcaster.

Farfal’s time in the background came to an abrupt end in December, when — together with board members from Law and Justice’s previous coalition allies, which were eliminated from parliament after the 2007 elections — he staged an unexpected coup against the head of public television, and took his job.

Farfal immediately began to impose his will on state television, steadily purging the network of journalists and officials opposed to him and his nationalist line, and replacing them with cronies from the nearly defunct League of Polish Families.

“The atmosphere is really terrible. We’re just keeping our heads down,” says a journalist with TVP Polonia, one of the national channels.

He has also given prominence to eurosceptic views challenging the European Union, forcing a break in programming to broadcast an interview with Declan Ganley, an Irish millionaire who was a key actor in persuading the Irish to vote against the Lisbon treaty reforming the functioning of the EU. Ganley’s allies are now setting up a Polish wing of his Libertas organization for the upcoming elections to the European parliament.

While Farfal’s activism may not be much help for Libertas, which is unlikely to win any seats in the European elections, it may have been some help to his friends in the League of Polish Families. For the first time in years a recent opinion poll found that the League had nudged above the 5 percent threshold needed to win seats in national elections.

Farfal, meanwhile, has been unable to break free from his tainted past. He took one of Poland’s largest dailies to court for calling him a “former neo-nazi." A couple of weeks ago the court ruled against him, with the judge saying that Farfal was a public person, “who should not be one because of the views he once expressed.”

Despite the awkwardness caused by his presence, the odds are that Farfal will remain in place at least until the autumn, when the government hopes to pass a law revamping Poland’s media law.

More GlobalPost dispatches from Poland:

Poland split over IVF

A Communist legacy

Kazimierz and his Isabel