Poland’s long-running battle with Brussels over controversial judicial and media reforms has stepped up a gear, with fresh pushbacks by the EU’s executive and judiciary – amid growing street protests at home.
Two days after a stinging rebuke from the European Court of Justice on court reform, the European Commission announced on Wednesday it will challenge a proposed new law allowing Poland’s government open inquiries into political opponents – four months before the country’s scheduled general election.
While the government says the plan is to examine Russian influence in Polish public life over the last 20 years, critics call it an abuse of power to undermine Donald Tusk – former prime minister and head of the opposition party Civic Platform.
On Sunday, about half a million people marched through Warsaw, with many using the anniversary of postwar Poland’s first partially-free elections in 1989 to denounce what they see as efforts by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) to skew a tight poll to secure a third term in office.
“Democracy dies in silence but you’ve raised your voice for democracy today,” said Mr Tusk to cheering supporters at the end of the march in front of Warsaw’s rebuilt royal palace.
While the march received full coverage on private media outlets, state broadcaster TVP flagged it in advance as a “march of hate” and largely ignored it in main news bulletins.
Since PiS took office in 2015, public television and radio have been brought under close government control. After seven years reporting the government line, however, TVP’s coverage on Sunday was a step too far for some of the national broadcaster’s employees.
Five of TVP’s 15-member oversight board attacked reporting of the demonstration as “extremely unreliable and biased”. In an official complaint to Poland’s broadcast regulator, TVP was accused of reframing a “peaceful, joyful... emotional” get-out-the-vote march, organised by Mr Tusk’s opposition party, into a “hate march... calling for the [overthrowing] of the democratically-elected government”.
That the main evening news show relegated coverage of the march to the 11th and 25th minute of its broadcast is, the complaint suggests, “an ostentatious denial of fairness and impartiality” in violation of Poland’s broadcasting code.
Accusations of partial and politicised coverage are nothing new for Poland: after the last elections in 2019 and 2020, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said TVP “acted as a campaign vehicle” for PiS.
But the public pushback by TVP journalists may be too late: a recent Reuters Institute study shows that 24 per cent of Polish people trust TVP, compared to nearly one-in-two who trust private television broadcaster TVN.
As political tensions build at home, pressure on Warsaw from Brussels has ratcheted up further with a final ruling from the European Court of Justice on judicial reforms.
The court sided with European Commission against Poland over a law that prevents judges questioning the legality of new judicial appointments procedures and new appointees. The court found this law – and a (now defunct) disciplinary chamber for judges – violated EU law because it prevented judges challenging “rules which would undermine the independence of judges”.
An independent judiciary in each member state, the Luxembourg court added, is “an integral part of the very identity of the European Union”.
Poland’s deputy justice minister Sebastian Kaleta dismissed the verdict as a “farce” and insisted the European court had no competence to rule on a member state’s legal system.
Since an interim European Court of Justice ruling in October 2021, the commission has been fining Poland €1 million a day – halved to €500,000 in April – over the reforms now found to be illegal. To settle Poland’s total fine of €557 million, the commission has already withheld €360 million and insists Warsaw pay up the rest immediately.