Two countries in Central Europe – Poland and Slovakia, witnessed turbulent political changes at the end of 2023. The newly elected governments signal significant transformations in the media landscape. While Robert Fico’s cabinet’s first steps foster disinformation, endorse pro-Russian media outlets, and crack down on civil society and free media, Donald Tusk’s government in Warsaw promises air for freedom of speech, public media, and European values but it is not an easy path.
Slovakia’s authoritarian path
In Slovakia, Prime Minister Robert Fico returned to power in October 2023 after previously being ousted following the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak in 2018. His return followed an election campaign rooted in disinformation, hate, populism, and set against liberal values, the EU, migrants, LGBTQ, media, and progressive politicians. Fico’s SMER-SD party formed a coalition with two other parties – HLAS (led by his former deputy Peter Pellegrini) and SNS (Slovak National Party). The ultraconservative, pro-Russian, anti-migrant Fico is involved in multiple corruption scandals. Shortly after being appointed, he launched a campaign against police officers, journalists, and magistrates who dared to investigate him and the circle around him.
The first steps of the new government include efforts to suspend the Special Prosecution Office. The special prosecution office is responsible for the most serious crimes in Slovakia, especially corruption, extremism, or criminal cases, including the murder of Jan Kuciak, whose case is still in court. Robert Fico’s government proposes that the prosecution is "breaking many human rights," so it must be banned, and the cases should be moved to regular regional prosecution offices. However, the fear is that they are not prepared to deal with such high-profile cases. The European Commission and the Parliament have condemned the government's attempts to suspend the special prosecution, too, and are calling upon Fico’s cabinet to uphold the principles of the rule of law.
While part of the society welcomes the radical measures introduced by the government, protests against the new ‘reforms’ have been taking place across Slovakia. Demonstrations call upon the government to abandon prosecution and penal code changes. The government actively seeks to disrupt anti-corruption policies, including limiting the powers of a whistleblower office, suspending or firing any person in the police who investigates high-level corruption.
Emerging threats to freedom of speech
Fico’s cabinet has promised a radically different approach to media compared to the previous government. In a video statement on social media, the PM labelled several of the biggest news outlets (TV Markíza, Denník N, SME and the portal Aktuality) as "hostile media" and said that they would not be allowed into the government meetings or given any comments from his party. Different ministers have already stopped answering questions from these newsrooms.
Meanwhile, the government maintains a very friendly relationship with the conspiratorial/disinformation media that were very helpful during their campaign. The outlets previously on the periphery of media presence and some even blocked in the initial phase of the Russian invasion of Ukraine are now gaining recognition from the government and the parliament. The chief of staff at the Ministry of Culture (responsible for media regulation) recently offered a friendly interview to TV Slovan in his office, criticising the mainstream media and endorsing disinformation outlets, such as TV Slovan, as examples of professional journalism.
Ironically, two ministers in the current government worked as journalists at TV Markiza in the past – Martina Simkovicova (SNS, Ministry of Culture) and Erik Tomas (HLAS, Ministry of Social Affairs). Simkovicova openly refuses to talk to mainstream outlets labelled “hostile” and continues to host a political commentary program on TV Slovan even after taking office. In her first days at the office, she also suspended the already processed open call for EU funds focused on fighting disinformation and redirected it to the renovation of a roof on the Slovak Philharmonic instead. In a recent decision, Simkovicova allowed cooperation in the field of culture with Russia and Belarus.
The new government introduced budget cuts in the public broadcaster RTVS. They seek to decrease the funds for the TV and radio broadcaster and make them conditional. This puts public media in Slovakia in a very vulnerable position. The intention is to further split the public TV and radio into two separate entities. The decrease in the budget means 55 million euros less for the public broadcaster and it can also mean suspension of its recently launched news or sports channels.
The International Press Institute (IPI) joined Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and other media freedom groups in writing to the Slovak President and members of the National Council to oppose the budget cut and any attempt to politically influence the public broadcaster in Slovakia.
HOPE FOR THE PROGRESSIVE PART OF THE SOCIETY IN POLAND
Following the victory in the October 2023 elections, a new government was formed in Poland – a coalition of three factions: the centrist Civic Coalition (KO), the centre-right Third Way (Trzecia Droga), and The Left (Lewica). The coalition replaced the national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, which had been in power in Poland since 2015.
The new government has initiated a process of restoring the legal order, impartiality, and the state of public media. In December, the Sejm, the lower chamber of Parliament, passed a resolution aimed at declaring this process. In a swift action, the Minister of Culture, Barłomiej Sienkiewicz dismissed the management boards at state television, the Polish radio, and the news agency PAP. He appointed new supervisory boards that select new managers. A new team started a new evening programme that replaced the flagship programme through which PiS used to broadcast its most aggressive propaganda. TVP Info channel stopped broadcasting and the previous news programme Wiadomości (News), was replaced by a new one titled 19:30.
In response, a group of Law and Justice MPs attempted to blockade public media offices, opposing the changes in TVP and other public media. While the new management and journalist teams started working in the building, members of PiS organised sittings to “defend democracy and pluralism” in the headquarters of the national television which has been strongly in favour of them until recently. These meetings that were held until early January were also attended by the journalists on the TV who did not recognise the new leadership of TVP. In late December, the dismissed TVP board of directors and the National Media Council, controlled by PiS, attempted to appoint a new CEO for TVP, but these actions had no legal consequences.
Media expectations for a brighter future
The new government coalition claims to prioritise the restoration of freedom of speech and pluralism. However, during its tenure, the Law and Justice party (PiS) established a parallel legal and public order, posing a challenge for the current administration to dismantle it swiftly. The implementation of these changes has sparked controversy, with a recent court ruling challenging the government's approach. The reforms were justified using commercial law, with the state being a major shareholder in public media. However, to change the management of public media, the procedure should have happened through the National Media Council, a PiS-influenced institution favouring the previous regime. Amending the current legislation necessitates approval from President Andrzej Duda, an unlikely scenario.
In December, Reporters Without Borders voiced concerns over media plurality and press freedom in Poland, citing a decline from 18th to 57th place in the World Press Freedom Index during the eight-year rule of Law and Justice. The organisation called on the new government for comprehensive measures supporting media freedom, particularly urging systemic reforms for public media following an inclusive public debate.
The changes in public media, if sustained, will have broader implications for the Polish media market. A new management board in TVP is poised to establish a news channel after the closure of TVP Info, resulting in numerous job vacancies that TVP intends to fill from other outlets, including regional and local newsrooms. Similar scenarios are anticipated in Polish Radio and most news desks within Polska Press newspapers and online services. Meanwhile, the former TVP team is likely to seek employment in conservative and right-oriented outlets, signalling a shift to the right and closer affiliations with PiS politicians, as seen on TV Republika. This trend of personnel transfers is expected to persist.