Brussels debates new reforms by Polish government

Fears of extremism but ruling PiS party warns EU to stay out of its domestic affairs

Jacek Kurski: the new president of Polish Television. The new government has been criticised for undermining democratic principles with its reforms of state-funded media and law. Photograph: Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters

Jacek Kurski: the new president of Polish Television. The new government has been criticised for undermining democratic principles with its reforms of state-funded media and law. Photograph: Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters

 

European commissioners will debate Poland’s political direction and recent reforms this morning, amid concerns that the new national conservative government is pushing the country into Hungary’s extremist sphere.  The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has rejected such claims.

Anyone seeking to understand the latest round in Poland’s cultural war should look to the Kurski brothers, Jacek and Jaroslaw, who are leading figures in opposing, warring camps.

Last week Jacek Kurski, a hard-right conservative and close ally of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, was appointed head of Poland’s state broadcaster (TVP) under controversial new laws allowing direct political influence over appointments and content.

That prompted a weekend protest outside TVP’s headquarters in Warsaw where one of the speakers was Kurski’s own brother Jaroslaw, three years older and a leading left-liberal with the Gazeta Wyborcza daily newspaper.

Born in Gdansk in the 1960s, the Kurski brothers cut their political teeth in the Solidarity trade union and venerated its leader Lech Walesa, whose campaign against communist rule in Poland sparked the end the Cold War.

Accused prime minister

Jacek Kurski insists his priority at TVP is to protect “the independence of public television from the dangers of the world of politics”, five years after the self-declared “Kaczynski bulldog” demanded PiS control over media to “present our values by examples of real heroes”.

Kurski once accused former prime minister Donald Tusk of hiding a grandfather in the Wehrmacht, a claim Kurski admitted was made-up but was effective propaganda. A decade ago he was forced to apologise for claiming Tusk’s party had been bankrolled by an insurance company.

To be fair, tinkering with TVP is a temptation for all new Polish governments, something that has seen millions of Poles switch their trust to the thriving private media.

But these latest reforms go further than before: TVP contracts have been cancelled and staff have been told they can reapply for their old jobs in three months’ time.

Critics say Kurski’s promises to make TVP a place of “honest debate and fair fight” that will “rebuild national unity and aim for grand, noble goals”, recall conciliatory PiS election promises now forgotten amid a divisive cultural war.

Smokescreen

“Every authoritarian power is afraid of truth and control, that’s why they are attacking the media and constitutional tribunal,” said Jaroslaw Kurski, the journalist and his brother’s toughest critic.

After PiS scored an absolute parliamentary majority in October’s general election, it worked quickly to tackle what it sees as widespread cronyism – by appointing its own supporters to key positions, pardoning cronies accused of abuse of office and tightening control of state institutions.

Before its television shake-up, PiS appointed judges to the constitutional tribunal to replace appointees of the previous government – a move the tribunal itself ruled illegal.

Ahead of today’s EU debate on Poland, Warsaw officials have warned Brussels to stay out of its domestic affairs.

On Monday, the German ambassador to Warsaw was invited into the foreign ministry for a meeting.

With all state institutions under his control PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who held six hours of talks last week with Hungary’s Viktor Orban, has warned Poland’s neighbours that “no pressure, no threats . . . will make us turn back from this path”.

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