Tech & Rights

Fine Against Polish TV Station Is a Violation of Free Speech

The Polish National Broadcasting Council's recent fine on the private TV broadcaster TVN for alleged biased reporting is a shocking violation for free speech and democratic norms.

by Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights

According to Liberties member the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR), the decision to impose an exceptionally severe financial penalty, unaccompanied by any detailed justification for this decision, constitutes a serious violation of the freedom of speech.

Parliament work is key part of news journalism

In its position statement, the HFHR emphasised that the penalty concerns the reporting of the so-called parliamentary crisis of December 2016 and relates social protests that raised substantial and understandable interests among members of the public.

Being able to cover both parliamentary sessions and public assemblies is a basic duty of the media, helping to fulfill their role of a “public watchdog” and is a key part of the proper functioning of a democratic state ruled by law.

In Selmani and Others v. Macedonia and Pentikäinen v. Finland, the European Court of Human Rights directly points to state authorities’ obligation to ensure the freedom of reporting such events. In light of the above judgments, the National Broadcasting Council's (NBC) decision seems irreconcilable with the standards of freedom of speech set down by the Strasbourg court.

Media’s duty isn't to be government mouthpiece

The protection given to the freedom of expression in the private media industry is all the more important against the background of the 2016 public media “reform”, which effectively deprived public media outlets of the ability to ensure unbiased coverage of public activities.

After the “reform”, private broadcasters became the only source of anti-government criticism or information inconvenient for the government. In such circumstances, exposing private media to any form of harassment, including regulatory penalties for covering important public events may be perceived as an attempt to limit the pluralism of the Polish media market.

“We fear that this action is intended not only to discipline a specific television outlet but also create a broader ‘chilling effect’ that will have an impact on other broadcasters that may consider properly performing their role in a democracy by, say exercising the control function towards public authorities. This function may not involve being a mouthpiece for the government as the essence of the public watchdog role is to cover all publicly important events, including those that raise significant social emotions, and also in a manner that involves a negative assessment of the government’s actions”, reads the HFHR's statement.

Reviewing NBC decisions

The HFHR is additionally concerned about an effective and independent judicial review of the National Broadcasting Council’s decision. These concerns are related to the currently debated Supreme Court Bill, under which judges of the newly created Chamber of Extraordinary Review and Public Affairs of the Supreme Court will ultimately decide cases in which an appeal is filed against a decision of the NBC Chair.

The Chamber will be appointed by the currently overhauled National Council of the Judiciary, itself selected by politicians.

The statement continues: “Given the above considerations, we call on the National Broadcasting Council to fulfill its statutory duties with integrity and to respect the standards of freedom of speech, right to information and public interest in the radio and television sectors, the obligations imposed on the Council by Article 213(1) of the Constitution”.

HFHR monitoring NBC decisions

In the past, the HFHR has intervened in cases related to the decisions of the National Broadcasting Council that, in our opinion, were problematic from the point of view of freedom of speech. We were involved, among others, in the issue of imposing penalties on the TOK FM or the refusal to award licences for multiplex transmissions for TV Trwam.

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