Taking control of Poland's airwaves

WARSAW, Poland — Ex-communists and commie-haters are normally enemies, but in Poland the two groups have formed a bizarre coalition that has taken control of the public media just as the country gears up for an early presidential election.

The unusual bed-fellows are the Democratic Left Alliance, the heirs of the communists who ruled Poland for 45 years, and the right-wing opposition Law and Justice party.

They combined last fall to take control of public television and radio, ousting former neo-Nazi Piotr Farfal, who had once been an ally of Law and Justice, but had then spun off on his own. Now the opposition runs the country’s most popular television and radio channels and the government, led by the centrist Civic Platform party, has proven unable to pass legislation that would wrest away control of public media.

Unusually, the current government has not put much effort into placing its loyalists into senior position in television and radio — something of a break with past precedent. One of the first actions of the 2005-2007 Law and Justice government was to seize control of the board that oversees radio and television, a body it still controls despite the party’s loss of power two years ago.

Being in charge of TV and radio was not much of a priority until the April 10 plane crash, which killed President Lech Kaczynski and many other senior officials, and forced an early presidential vote — the first round of which takes place on June 20.

Now the main channel of public television — TVP1 — is firmly in the hands of Law and Justice, and has become a vital propaganda instrument for Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the dead president’s twin brother and now a presidential candidate.

The most obvious examples of the network’s tilt are popular weekly talk shows that strongly back Kaczynski, as well as a recent documentary about the enormous crowds that gathered in front of the presidential palace during the week-long mourning period. The documentary showed people claiming that the Russians may have been involved in the crash, and accusing the government of having blood on its hands.

Public radio echoes a similar line.

Jacek Sobala, the head of one of the public radio stations ("Three"), was one of the speakers at a recent overtly Law and Justice rally commemorating the first month after the air disaster. He exhorted the crowd: “Please believe me, it’s possible for Poland to be ours, for Poland to be for us.”

While Kaczynski and his Law and Justice party are by far the largest opposition grouping, the much smaller Democratic Left Alliance has been keen to grab its share of the airwaves. It recently managed to remove the director of the all-news TVPInfo network for not doing enough to promote the campaign of Grzegorz Napieralski, the leader of the Democratic Left Alliance, who is only polling at about 5 percent.

Reporters have long been familiar with these kinds of demands, and those who do not want to take part in the propaganda war try to spend their time covering non-political stories.

“We’ve learned to keep our heads down,” said a non-partisan producer at TVPInfo.

While the government does not have direct control of public channels, it does tend to get a very positive hearing in private television, particularly the influential TVN network, as well as the country’s largest serious daily newspaper, the Gazeta Wyborcza.

However, private television is doing well financially, while the public media are hemorrhaging red ink, and hundreds of thousands of Poles no longer bother paying the mandatory public media fees that are common in Europe.

Despite these problems, there remains a conviction that getting access to the airwaves is key to winning election campaigns — something that recent history does not actually bear out. The Democratic Left Alliance was shattered in the 2005 elections, despite having a lock on public TV and radio. Two years later, Law and Justice lost the parliamentary elections, although by then it was in charge of the media.

In light of that, perhaps Civic Platform’s reluctance to elbow its way into the public media makes sense.

“Fortunately in Poland those who control the public media don’t win elections,” said Donald Tusk, the prime minister, in a recent interview.