The Polish Aftermath: media legislation in the Visegrad Group

Poland’s new media law is very much in the news. At home and abroad many consider this reform anti-democratic – an attack on the plurality of public information, while the government stresses the importance of “bringing public media back to the Poles.” What do the other Visegrad countries think about the new law, and how does media legislation work there?

Photo: CreativeCommons/ Georgie Pauwels

It was 2015’s penultimate evening, and millions of Poles had gotten home from work or were buying the last few things they needed for their New Year’s Eve celebrations . But this was not so the 418 Polish MPs who were sitting in the Sejm in Warsaw voting on the first stage of a new media law.  1 Eventually the bill  2 was approved: a success for the ruling government. “Wolne media!” “Wolne media!” (Polish for “Free media!”) cried the Law and Justice party’s (PiS) members of parliament, who welcomed the result. The very next day, on December 31st, the Senate also approved the new media law, and one week later, on January 7th, Polish president Andrzej Duda signed the bill into law.

Polarized debate in Poland about the new media law

On New Year’s Eve four directors of state-run TVP (Telewizja Polska) channels resigned to protest the reforms. Meanwhile, the head of public Polish Radio’s First channel chose to broadcast the Polish and the EU anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, each hour to stress how patriotism and Europeanism can coexist.  3 The new media law was also contested by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), a civic organization that roused hundreds of thousands of Poles to the streets in criticism of the reforms, which  they considered, “violations of the Constitution and the introduction of an abuse of the mechanisms of democracy, or authoritarian rule.”  4

A criticism that is not shared by everyone. A portion of the public, who think the former government’s grip on public information was biased, welcome the new media law as something that worsened the situation. This view is even shared by some Polish journalists. Tomasz Wróblewski, editor of Wprost stated that, “for those who eagerly supported the (former) ruling party, losing their jobs will certainly be an unpleasant experience. But it’s not the end of democracy.” Wprost, a weekly magazine that in June 2014 published transcriptions of leaked tapes that embarrassed Poland’s then government, soon had their offices searched by the police.  5 “The media market does not only include the public media,” he said, stressing that, “what is happening now can in no way be compared to the police harassment previously meted out to right-wing journalists.”  6

However, not all journalists and media experts in Poland agree with his evaluation of the situation. On the contrary, many consider the new law a catastrophe for Polish media and democracy. Poland’s former Financial Times correspondent and the president of the think-tank, Unia & Polska Foundation, Krzysztof Bobiński told the V4 Revue that, “the resignation of TVP leadership enabled the government to ‘purge’ public television,” adding that the maneuver, “shows how we are moving into a propaganda situation.”  7 Bobiński is also a member of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ), one of the first organizations that expressed alarm about the reform, sending a letter to the Polish Minister of Culture, Piotr Gliński, before its approval.  8

On January 5th it was the Council of Europe (CoE), an intergovernmental organization promoting human rights, that wrote to the Polish President Andrzej Duda, asking him not to sign the new media law.  9 A position also backed by the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) who sent a letter right after Duda signed the bill to Gunther Oettinger, the EU commissioner responsible for media issues. The letter calls the measures taken by the Polish government, “contradictory to media pluralism, the independence of public service broadcasting and to democracy in Poland.”  10

Whether the new law is “anti-democratic” or not, one thing is certain: it marks a major breakthrough for public media in the country. In 1992 public TVP and Polish Radio were put under the control of the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT), which looked after their independence and pluralism.  11 For the next 23 years it was the KRRiT that had the power to appoint or dismiss the heads of state-run media, without the ruling political establishment’s ability to interfere in their decisions – at least theoretically speaking.

In fact, it must be stressed how the total separation of politics and public information was never really achieved in Poland. As the annual “Freedom of the Press” reports on Poland, published by the American NGO Freedom House between 2011 and 2015 attest: “Although KRRiT members are required to suspend their memberships in political parties, the Council has always been highly politicized.”  12 A legitimate objection to a body that was supposed to be apolitical, but that is now belonging to the past. The new media law makes the Council useless, so much so that the Polish government plans to replace it with another governing body.

On January 26th, the KRRiT released a statement on the changes the public media reform would enact. “The direct, political appointment of a politician and member of the party now in government, who was one of the main supporters of electoral propaganda To TVP’s presidential post is in direct conflict with our declared intention of keeping politics and public media separate,”  13 it said. The statement also asked the new heads of the Polish state-run radio and television to, “give up activities are incompatible with the ethics of journalism and that will destroy the independence of public media.”  14

These are pleas that the Law and Justice MPs have downplayed, claiming that the reform was needed to “bring public media back to the Poles” and saying that “in a parliamentary democracy, it is not acceptable that public information only criticize the government.”  15 On January 19th, Polish Premier Beata Szydło rebuffed international criticism the media reform received, as the EU Commission decided to launch an inquiry into the country’s possible violation of the rule of law.  16 Speaking to European Parliament, Mrs Szydło said: “Sometimes we hear voices that hurt and are unfair and unjust to Poland and the Polish government. It is possible that these voices speak due to a lack of information, or possibly even bad will.” She continued by adding that, “the changes we carried out reflect EU standards and in no way differ from the standards in other EU states.”  17

Bobiński said he expected this kind of political discourse: “The new government was quite surprised by the street demonstrations following their reform of the Constitutional Tribunal. That’s why they thought it important that mass media back their views. They starting reforming public information because they felt excluded from it,” he explained.

Tab.1 Freedom of the Press in the Visegrad countries (2010-2015)

Freedom House annual report 18 Poland Czech Republic Slovakia Hungary
2015 26 free 21 free 24 free 37 partly free
2014 27 free 20 free 23 free 35 partly free
2013 26 free 19 free 22 free 36 partly free
2012 25 free 19 free 21 free 36 partly free
2011 25 free 19 free 22 free 30 free
2010 24 free 18 free 23 free 23 free

A warning for Czechs

Milan Šmíd, a Czech media analyst and retired assistant professor of Journalism at Prague’s Charles University told the V4Revue that, “Czech private and public media are thoroughly reporting on the new Polish law; and the general attitude here towards the Polish the media legislation is negative.” He further explained that, “Czech journalists see this Polish media law amendment as a warning. Their perception is that this is what could happen here if the nationalistic and extremist parties gain the upper-hand in Czech politics.  19

Today, the Czech Republic is often considered the best country of the Visegrad Group when it comes to media freedoms.  20 “I would rate Czech public media as quite free from governmental as well as any political party influence, however, that doesn’t mean that there is no political influence on media at all,” confirms Šmíd. “In fact,” he adds, “Czech public media is basically loyal to the government, but gives a proportional voice to opposing and dissenting opinions.”

Public broadcaster CT and public radio CRo are independent, separate organizations.  21 Current Czech media legislation consists of four basic acts, formulated in the span of 20 years, between 1991 and 2010. The most important of them is the Broadcasting Act,  22 which established the Council for Radio and Television Broadcasting (RRTV), the supervisory body over public information. The RRTV makes sure the content of television and radio broadcasts conform with the law. “The main difference between the Czech system and the one they had in Poland before the reform,” stressed Šmíd, “is that the RRTV does not make any decisions concerning the managements of public media while the Polish KRRiT did.”

There are two controlling bodies – the Council of Czech TV and the Council of Czech Radio – appointed by the Czech National Parliament for public media. It’s these two bodies that have the power to appoint or dismiss directors, as stated in article 8 of the Czech Television Act.  23  “In 2014 the Sobotka government promised to change the appointments of the so-called ‘media councils’ to make them more distant from political parties, and those amendment drafts have not yet been submitted to parliament,” claims Šmíd.

However, not everything is smooth when it comes to public information and the role played by media in the Czech Republic. Šmíd points out that, “there is a part of our society that does not trust public media journalism, due to their commitment to the liberal political system and their loyalty to the establishment.” According to Šmíd, “these people are mostly radical nationalists or supporters of small extremist political parties contesting what they perceive as the EU’s supremacy.”

An issue far more dangerous for the pluralism and independence of Czech public information is the ongoing oligarchization of the national media landscape, as foreign media owners leave the country one by one and are replaced by local tycoons. Václav Štĕtka, former head of the PolCoRe Group at the Institute of Communication Studies and Journalism at Charles University explains: “We used to be a country heavily dominated by foreign media ownership before the crisis, with the share of foreign investment in many of the media segments reaching up to 80%. Today, there are no foreign investors among newspaper publishers. Instead the press and a part of the broadcasting media scene are divided among a handful of Czech billionaires with little or no previous experience in the media business.”  24

Condemnations from Slovakia

Andrej Školkay, the director of the School of Communication and Media (SKAMBA) in Bratislava, told the V4 Revue that, “there was negative coverage of the Poland’s new public media law in Slovakia.” “Not only did the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists condemned the reform, but also the Slovak public television together with the director of Czech public television did so as well  25 in a joint statement, in which they expressed support for the European Broadcasting Union’s position on this issue,” he added.  26

RTVS is Slovakia’s state-owned television and public radio and is considered a reliable information source by one in four Slovaks, according to a 2015 poll. 27 The current national public media legislation states that parliament elects the director general of public television and radio by a simple majority, while they also have the power to vote for the dismissal of the director general. As Školkay puts it: “Media and public information legislation is very much a work in progress here with only minor changes happening. However, no serious threat to freedom of speech has happened so far.”

The second Fico government, which began in spring 2012 and will be in charge until the March 5th elections this year, started with the premier declaring his friendly and tolerant position towards the media. Yet, in July 2012, parliament dismissed then general director of RTVS, Miloslava Zemková, because she did not give the Council advanced notice of her intention to call for a public tender, although she claimed she was not obliged to do so.  28

As for print, some Slovak newspapers are not afraid to express their criticism of any government in charge. So much so that in 2015, the Slovak government officially decided not to answer any questions coming from the daily newspaper, Denník N. “As a reaction, the newspaper submitted an official complaint to the Constitutional Court,”  29 recounts Školkay, who added that, “the government defended themselves by saying their refusal to answer Denník N did not have any impact on the freedom of speech and the press in Slovakia.”  30

Denník N is staffed by many journalists and editors that previously worked for Sme, leaving the daily in protest when 50% of its owner, Petit Press, a subsidiary of the German publishing group, Rhenisch-Bergische Verlagsgesellschaft (RBVG),  31 was sold to Penta Investment. 32 Penta is a Slovakian investment group founded in 1994, operating there and in the Czech Republic, where they own Vltava-Labe-Press and hold a de facto monopoly on Czech regional daily newspapers (even though some national dailies, such as MF Dnes, publish their regional supplements). Marek Dospiva, the Czech co-owner of Penta justified this:  “The fact that we own media gives us the assurance that it will be more difficult for anyone to attack us,” she said.  33 A statement that shows the dangers and possible struggles the Slovak (and Czech) private media face as they try to maintain their independence in the face of future economic and political influence.

Silence from Hungary

Gabor Polyak, an associate professor at the University of Pécs and the University of Münster, as well as a research leader at the Hungarian think tank, Mertek Media Monitor, told the V4Revue that, “what happened in Poland was not very important news in Hungary.” He said that, “Hungarian journalists didn’t say much regarding this new Polish media law. Perhaps they were disappointed by what they experienced when they tried to exert international pressure on the Hungarian media reform years ago without success,”  34 he added. The absence of any official statements or protests from Hungarian journalists criticizing the Polish media amendment stands in striking contrast to the solidarity Hungarian journalists received from their Polish colleagues when the tables were turned, and Hungary’s new media law passed.

In December 2010, the Hungarian Parliament approved the Media Act prompted by Viktor Orbán’s government after he won April elections that year. Unlike the recent Polish reform, the Hungarian bill not only affected public information, but also included private broadcasters as well as print and digital media. As for state-run media, the Media Act merged the Public Service Foundation (PSF)  – formerly autonomous bodies overseeing the country’s public television (MT) and radio (MR) – into a single entity. The president of the PSF is now appointed by another newly created body, the Media Council, whose members and president are appointed by the government.

The Media Council has power over media outlets, websites and economic service blogs, and can force the publication of contradictory stories or impose fines for a number of reasons, some of them withdrawn after a consultation with the EU Commission.  35The Media Council’s president has the power to appoint and dismiss the executive manager of the Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund (MTVA), the body that exercises the ownership rights and responsibilities of public information assets.

When the Media Act was approved there was no organized protest in Hungarian public media. On the day of the law’s passing, journalist Attila Mong (current editor of the V4Revue) and his editor, Zsolt Bogár, interrupted their morning news program on Kossuth Rádió with a minute of silence as a sign of protest.  36 Afterwards, they were suspended by their employer and underwent disciplinary proceedings, and they have never been back on the air again. In December 2011, public television journalist Balázs Nagy Navarró began a hunger strike with a few MT colleagues: he was dismissed, but won all his lawsuits against MTVA.  37

In March 2011 the European Parliament asked the Orbán government to review the Media Act and, “restore the independence of media governance in the country by halting state interference with the freedom of expression and balanced coverage.”  38 A request that echoes what the European Commission is asking of the Polish government right now regarding its media reform.  However, in Hungary, “the improvements suggested by the European Parliament disregarded the public media, and resulted in just a few minor modifications to the law,” Polyak said.  39 The Council of Europe, OSCE and the United Nations also stated that Hungarian public media couldn’t guarantee independent and objective information, but they enforced no change.

“The whole information system here is over-politicized. In public television programs the opinions and points of view of the opposition are shown, but their criticisms are surrounded by friendlier views of the government, and the last word is always given to those in power,” Polyak said. He then add that “the government builds and destroys media empires with only a few independent outlets and journalists still working, but public media became purely state-controlled media, and is handled as an intermediate of the government’s messages, with a structure encouraging the influence of political interests.”

This is a system that does not flirt with pluralism, but one that is paying off with Hungarian audience as the overall viewership of public television channels is increasing.  40 As Polyak puts it: “Orbán is politically stronger than ever and popular with the electorate, while the opposition is in ruins. The investigative press is doing a great job, but I do not think there are any factors that will force the government to change their course regarding the media.”

Back to Poland for the second stage

The Polish government is popular too, with PiS leading the strongest opposition party, Modern (Nowoczesna) by a 15% margin according to a recent poll.  41 This is more than the 13.5% gap PiS had over their former strongest opponents, Civic Platform (PO), in the last parliamentary elections, but Modern is gaining ground. Premier Szydło does not seem to fear the national and international criticism of the media reform, even though Bobiński said that, “we would be in a much worse situation without the demonstrations at home and abroad.” He explains: “ If there is not a complete propagandistic approach in public media right now, it is because the government is wanting to prove the protesters are wrong by emphasizing how pluralistic public information still is.”

One month after President Duda signed the media law amendment, some things have already changed within Poland’s public TV. There is now a new president of the TVP board, Jacek Kurski, who replaced Janusz Daszczyński on January 8th. Mr Kurski was a member of the EU Parliament and Hungarian Parliament representing PiS. The government also appointed new directors at the main public television channels, replacing the ones who resigned in protest over the new law. Among them, Jan Pawlicki, former reporter for the PiS-friendly Telewizja Republika, took over TVP1; while Mateusz Matyszkowicz, the former executive director of the pro-PiS print magazines Fronda Lux and Teologia Polityczna, was put in charge of TVP Kultura, despite having no experience at all in television.

Mr Kurski said that his approach in leading TVP will be to use a “lancet” rather than a “lawnmower,”  42 and according to Bobiński, this means he intends to, “bring in new management and work to persuade them to do what the government wants, rather than sacking everyone.” Bobiński explains: “There already are signs that TVP programs have changed their approach to the news, and it’s quite clear that whenever the government wants something to be said or presented in a certain way, that it now happens in public media.”

While it’s important to keep in mind that the recently approved reform is only temporary, the ruling government wants to approve new and more extensive media legislation aimed at state-run broadcasters as well as at the National Polish Press Agency or PAP, before the current law expires on June 30th. So the second stage of Polish media reforms is coming soon.


  1. The Sejm is Polish Parliament’s lower house 
  2. “Poselski projekt ustawy medialnej (dokumentacja),” Polskie Radio, December 29th, 2015, accessed on February 17th, 2016,,Poselski-projekt-ustawy-medialnej-dokumentacja – in Polish.
  3. Adam Easton, “Poland’s ruling conservatives clash with EU over media control,” BBC News’ Inside Europe Blog, January 4th,  2016, accessed on February 16th, 2016,
  4., January 17th, 2016, accessed on February 16th, 2016,
  5. “Poland leaked tapes: Raid on Wprost magazine criticised,” BBC News, June 20th, 2014, accessed on February 16th, 2016,
  6. “Is Poland a failing democracy,”, January 13th, 2016, accessed on February 16th, 2016,
  7. Krzysztof Bobiński, all further quotes taken from a phone interview with the author, January 31st, 2016.
  8. “AEJ Open Letter asks Polish ministers to shelve ‘hasty’ plans for government control over public broadcasting,” Association of  European Journalists, December 29th, 2015, accessed on February 16th, 2016,
  9. Council of Europe, The Secretary General, January 5th 2016, accessed on February 16th, 2016,
  10. “The Polish media law is signed: our letter to EU Commissioner Oettinger,” European Federation of Journalists,January 7, 2016, accessed on February 16th, 2016,
  11. Krajowa Rada Radiofonii i Telewizji, “Broadcasting Act of 29 December 1992,” (unofficial text), accessed on  February 17th, 2016,
  12. “Freedom of the Press 2015 – Poland,” Freedom House, accessed on February 16th, 2016,
  13. Krajowa Rada Radiofonii i Telewizji, “Stanowisko KRRiT w zwiazku z zagrozeniem wolnosci slowa w mediach publicznych,” January 26th, 2016, accessed on February 16th, 2016,,2208,stanowisko-krrit-w-zwiazku-z-zagrozeniem-wolnosci-slowa-w-mediach-publicznych.html – in Polish.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Eric Maurice, “Polish government takes on public media,”, December 30th, 2015, accessed on February 16th, 2016,
  16. Maia de la Baume, “EU launches ‘rule of law’ probe of Poland,”, January 13th, 2016, accessed on February 16th, 2016,
  17. “Polish PM rebuffs EU criticism of media laws,”,  January 20th, 2016, accessed on February 16th, 2016,
  18. The Freedom of the Press index is an annual survey of media independence in 199 countries and territories published by the American NGO, Freedom House. Each country and territory receives a numerical score from 0 (most free) to 100 (least free), which serves as the basis for a status designation of Free, Partly Free, or Not Free: “Freedom of the Press 2015,” Freedom House, accessed on February 16th, 2016,
  19. Milan Šmíd, all further quotes taken from a mail exchange with the author, January 13th, 2016.
  20. “Freedom of the Press 2015 – Czech Republic,” Freedom House, accessed on February 16th, 2016,
  21. “Czech Republic profile – Media,” BBC News, January 7th, 2015, accessed on February 16th, 2016,
  22. “Broadcasting Act: ACT No. 231/2001 on Radio and Television Broadcasting and on Amendment to Other Acts,” May 17th, 2001, accessed on February 16th, 2016,
  23. “Act of the Czech National Council of 7 November 1991 on Czech Television,”, accessed on February 16th, 2016,
  24. Václav Štĕtka, “Media landscapes in Central Europe 25 years after transition,” Visegrad Insight, January 22nd, 2016, accessed on February 16th, 2016,
  25. “Mika a Dvořák kritizujú situáciu v poľských médiách,”, January 8th, 2016, accessed on February 16th, 2016, – in Slovak.
  26. Andrej Školkay, all further quotes taken from a mail exchange with the author, January 14th, 2016.
  27. “MML Omnibus Najobjektívnejšie televízne spravodajstvo III. Vlna 2015,” Median SK, October 21st, 2015, accessed on February 16th, 2016,
  28. “Zemková to depart from RTVS,” The Slovak Spectator, June 26th 2012, accessed on February 16th 2016,
  29. Lukáš Fila, “Nechce nám vláda odpovedať? Budeme sa brániť,” Denník N, May 29th 2015, accessed on February 16th 2016, – in Slovak.
  30. Monika Todová, “Ombudsmanka: Úrad vlády porušil neinformovaním Denníka N Ústavu,” Denník N, October 9th 2015, accessed on February 16th 2016, https://de
  31. “How to buy a (good) reputation,” The Economist, October 15th 2014, accessed on February 16th 2016,
  32. Lucia Najšlová, “You can’t buy everyone in Slovakia,” October 15th 2014, V4 Revue, accessed on February 16th 2016,
  33. Václav Štĕtka, “Media landscapes in Central Europe 25 years after transition,” Visegrad Insight, January 22nd 2016, accessed on February 16th 2016,
  34. Gabor Polyak, all further quotes taken from a mail exchange with the author, January 20th 2016.
  35. Center for Media & Communication Studies, “Public service media,” accessed on February 16th, 2016,
  36. Keno Verseck, “Press Freedom in Hungary: Prime Minister Launches New Offensive against Journalists,” Spiegel Online International, July 14th 2011, accessed on February 16th 2016,
  37. Roy Greenslade, “Hungarian TV journalists on hunger strike,” The Guardian, December 15th 2011, accessed on February 16th 2016,
  38. Library of Congress, “European Union; Hungary: European Parliament Resolution on Hungary’s Media Law,” March 16th 2011, accessed on February 16th 2016,
  39. “Forced Maneuver: Proposals and Expectations toward the Amendment of the Media Act,” Mertek Media Monitor, June 11th 2012, accessed on February 16th 2016,
  40. “News consumption, pluralism, democratic participation 2013,” Mertek Media Monitor, accessed on February 16th 2016,
  41. “Ruling party PiS slips further in voter support,” The Warsaw Voice, February 12th 2016, accessed on February 16th 2016,
  42. Agnieszka Kazimierczuk, “Kurski: Nie będę kosił kosiar,” Rzeczpospolita, January 19th 2016, accessed on February 16th 2016,
Lorenzo Berardi

Lorenzo Berardi

is a freelance journalist based in Warsaw. He is a contributor for Lettera43, The Varsovian, Polonicult and former correspondent of Lettera43 from the UK.