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Poland’s public radio Channel 3 is a hot test for the survival of public service broadcasting

 

Poland’s public radio Channel 3: a test case for the survival of true public service broadcasting

By Krzysztof Bobinski

 

A dispute over censorship at Polish public radio’s Third Channel (Trojka) has re-started a debate about the future of pubic service broadcasting in Poland and left journalists working in public media facing major ethical and professional challenges.

In a concession following an outcry over an official attempt to censor a song critical of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the country’s leader, the authorities  have installed new management at the station which has signalled it will abide by impartiality guidelines which have been abused throughout Poland’s public service media  since Kaczynski won an election in 2015.

The row started when the song came top of a weekly hit parade based on listeners’ votes which has been on the air since the early 1980’s. The song was played on May 15 after which officials scrambled to take it off the air.

Trojka has a special cult status. It was originally set up in the 1960s by the communist authorities to act as a safety valve for young people who shunned the propagandist tone of other official media. Trojka played western popular music and established a rapport with the audience as presenters adopted a tone which suggested that they too were critical of the government.

The station became a safe haven for several generations which continued to listen to Trojka even after 1989 when commercial stations were established and caught the ear of younger post communist audiences.

Nevertheless the aura of independence remained until 2015 when Law and Justice came to power and decided to take full control of public radio and television. At that moment Trojka had a respectable 8 per cent audience share, who as they  aged, had remained loyal to their favourite disc jockeys. These, many of them household names, had stayed with the station despite its growing propagandist tone, because they said they „didn’t want to betray their listeners who had stayed loyal”.

However the station  haemorrhaged journalists. Already a total of 54 had resigned, been sacked or were re-assigned between 2016 and 2020. Last month this flow turned into a flood when Trojka’s popular hit list came under criticism from the ruling party for playing the song critical of the party leader, and the radio’s management accused the DJ who had compered the list for nearly 40 years of falsifying the vote.

As the exodus of well know names from the station grew and the Culture Committee of the Senate (where Poland’s opposition controls 51 votes of the chamber’s 100 seats)  demanded the resignation of the head of Polish Radio Agnieszka Kaminska and the head of Trojka Tomasz Kowalczewski ,  the authorities panicked.

They have stood by Kaminska but  Kowalczewski resigned and thanks to the large exodus of staff the authorities found themselves facing the collapse of the station. It was even reduced to playing music without announcers because they had either resigned or gone on sick leave to wait out the ongoing public health crisis. Artists were also refusing to have their music played on the station and some record labels declared a boycott.

In a bid to stem the flow, the authorities  persuaded Kuba Strzyczkowski, a Trojka veteran,  to manage the station. He retains credibility with audiences and with employees there. He in turn asked Ernest Zozun, a seasoned foreign correspondent, to head news and public affairs. Sosun is a member of the Society of Journalists and Authors of Public Radio, a group of Polish public radio employees  committed to the independent journalism and impartiality standards in public media which are guaranteed by Polish law. Zozun, who starts work on June 10, has said he will work to re establish Trojka’s credibility with listeners and defend the station’s right to put out its own bulletins of news, which have until now been centralised in IAR, a newsroom which delivers news to all radio channels.

The Society has recently risked official displeasure by publicly appealing to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) to speak out in defence of journalistic public media standards in Poland.

Strzyczkowski and Zozun face a difficult task with a Polish presidential election slated for June 28. Polish Public Television  continues to unreservedly back the government candidate with a consistent propaganda line. Trojka will be watched carefully but a further row over attempts to censor the new team at Trojka at this moment would be likely to weaken Andrzej Duda, the incumbent and government candidate. If Mr Duda wins again a new crackdown is feared and its supporters worry that Trojka would then disappear.  If he loses to the opposition then the new Trojka team will not only gain greater editorial freedom but will be able to influence behaviour in favour of approved European standards of impartiality throughout the rest of Polish public radio.