Poles took to the streets Saturday in freezing temperatures to protest a new media law that allows the government to take control of state television and radio broadcasters, which many fear is a step toward an authoritarian state. Critics say the move by the Law and Justice party in power infringes on civil liberties and threatens the young democracy that emerged from the fall of Communism on 1989.
Despite criticism from the European Union and international media watchdogs, Poland's President Andrzej Duda signed the law into effect. It comes just two weeks after Duda approved a bill legitimizing the government's appointment of its own judges to Poland's highest court, a move that provoked mass demonstrations across the Central European country.
The attack on public media is the latest legislation rushed through since the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) led by former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski took office in November. On Friday, the government ignored EU warnings and appointed a man who once described himself as Kaczynski's "bull terrier," Jacek Kurski, as the new head of public TV.
The roots of the problem lie deep. Twenty-seven years since the collapse of communism, Poland has failed to create impartial state institutions, enabling successive governments to install loyalists in top positions. But many Poles fear Law and Justice is going further.
Much of the anger has been directed at the president for signing successive controversial laws into effect. Protesters accuse Duda of being wholly subordinate to Kaczynski and failing in his duty to uphold the constitution. Though Duda and Prime Minister Beata Szydlo occupy the highest political posts, "the Chairman" — as Kaczynski is known in Poland — remains party leader and the most powerful man in the country.
In just over two months, PiS has tightened its grip on the security services, the courts and the civil service. The government made no secret that a purge in the state-owned media was next. Long advocating their distaste for Polish mainstream media, PiS ministers do not shy away from expressing what they think of critical press coverage.
"If the media imagine they will occupy Poles by criticizing our changes, then this has to be stopped," said Ryszard Terlecki, head of the party's parliamentary caucus.
"Instead of creating a media shield for the Polish national interest, journalists often sympathize with negative opinions about Poland," claimed Elzbieta Kruk, another PiS minister.
Taking effect immediately, the media law empowers the treasury minister to hire and fire broadcasting directors of public television network TVP and public radio Polskie Radio. Previously, a media supervisory board made such appointments. As parliament passed the law on New Year's Eve, TVP managers resigned and Polish Radio began protesting by airing the national and EU anthems alternatively every hour.
Polish private media companies do not feel entirely safe either. PiS has spoken of "re-Polonizing" the country's press, complaining that Polish outlets have too many foreign shareholders. Kaczynski blamed mounting criticism towards of his party on Polish media being "in German hands."
In December, President Duda ignored protests at home and alerts from the European Commissioner of Human Rights and signed a controversial law limiting, in effect, the authority of the Polish constitutional tribunal. This time, the EU warned of a violation of "European values."
The European Commission, the union's executive arm, plans a debate on the situation in Poland for next week. The Commission is worried that Poland is turning into another Hungary, a fellow EU member where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has established what he himself calls an "illiberal democracy".
But Poland going rogue within the Union is a far more serious affair. It has almost four times the population of Hungary and has grown into a major EU player, with a large, growing economy and an important voice in the confrontation with Russia since the war in eastern Ukraine began. As the EU continues to face crises that require cooperation between member states, it is wary of seeing a key player reject its ideals — especially a country long seen in the West as a model of transition to democracy from Communism.
In a move that appeared to confirm such fears, Orbán travelled to southern Poland this week to meet with Kaczynski. In a meeting attended by neither President Duda, Prime Minister Szydlo nor any press and that later described by PiS ministers as "private," the two men — who have long been mutual admirers if not political allies — may well have spoken about dealing with pressure from Brussels.
Orbán faced similar warnings in 2010, when he took control of the courts and the media to cement his Fidesz party's position. Similarly to the current light-speed pace of reform in Poland, Fidesz sought to implement its most controversial projects as quickly as possible. PiS has passed a number of bills in late-night votes, over protests by the opposition that it did not even have time to familiarize itself with proposed legislation.
Orbán and Kaczynski have similar ideological narratives of national "reconstruction" for their former Eastern Bloc countries, which joined the EU at the same time, in 2004. Both populist politicians dislike the Western democratic values generally labeled as "liberalism" in Europe, and exploit historical sensitivities to strengthen distrust of the EU. Since Orbán's rise to power, Hungary has become a model for the Polish right wing. As leader of the opposition, Kaczynski promised to "build a Budapest in Warsaw."
But unlike Orbán, who morphed from liberal dissident into an authoritarian leader, Kaczynski's beliefs have stayed constant. Even under Communism, when he was fighting the regime, he disagreed with the liberal wing of Solidarity, the underground trade union movement that succeeded in overthrowing the Communist government. Instead, what he wanted for Poland was a "Fourth Republic" — the current one is the third — built on a conservative revolution reshaping state institutions according to a traditionalist, as he called it, "moral code."
Today, the 66-year-old veteran politician sees his party's return to power after eight years in opposition as a second – and probably last – chance to turn his conservative vision for Poland into reality. So far, he is making headway. But in the face of a rising tide of criticism, his success is not assured.
Follow Ola Cichowlas on Twitter: @olacicho