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Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Poland’s Duda goes to war against foreign media


WARSAW — Poland's down-to-the-wire presidential election is turning into a media bloodbath, with accusations of foreign interference and press bias as the campaign enters the final stretch before Sunday's runoff vote.

The bitterness is so deep that the two candidates could not agree to take part in the same debate on Monday night. Both incumbent Andrzej Duda of the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party and his challenger Rafał Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw from the center-right Civic Platform, held separate pre-election shows, each under the auspices of friendly media.

The dueling non-debates are part of a broader political war over the media — underlining Poland's deep political polarization, exacerbated by the extremely close contest between Duda and Trzaskowski.

The election will determine whether PiS, which is battling accusations from the European Commission that it is undermining the rule of law, continues to hold all the major levers of power in the EU's fifth-most populous country.

Duda's supporters reacted with fury to news splashed on the front page of Friday's Fakt, the country's most popular tabloid, that he had pardoned a convicted child abuser who had hit his daughter in the face and sexually molested her. "Mr President, how could you pardon someone like this?" the paper asked.

The pardon, issued in March, had come at the request of the convict's family, and lifted a restraining order that prevented him from seeing his family. The family was economically destitute and living in the same house as the abuser.

The story is a potential body blow for Duda, who has played up traditional values in contrast to the more liberal Trzaskowski. On Monday, Duda proposed a constitutional amendment that would bar single-sex couples from adopting children — part of a broader campaign against LGBTQ people aimed at boosting support from his conservative electorate.

In response to the news story, Duda's campaign and PiS went on the warpath against Fakt and especially against its owners — Switzerland's Ringier Holding and Germany's Axel Springer (which is a co-owner of POLITICO Europe).

"Does the Axel Springer company, with German roots, which is the owner of the Fakt newspaper, want to influence the Polish presidential election?" Duda asked on Friday. "Do the Germans want to elect Poland's president?"

Duda also unleashed an attack against Philipp Fritz, the Warsaw correspondent of Die Welt, a German paper owned by Axel Springer, accusing him of promoting Trzaskowski's campaign.

"Today, ladies and gentlemen, we have yet another German attack during these elections," Duda said.

That prompted Ulf Poschardt, Die Welt's editor-in-chief, to issue a letter Sunday night, accusing Duda of conducting a "propaganda campaign" against the newspaper, Axel Springer and Fritz.

"When our colleagues are attacked, we stand 100 percent behind them and look for civilized dialogue," Poschardt wrote.

Zbigniew Ziobro, the powerful justice minister, is now hinting that the government will have to look more closely at foreign media ownership.

"We have to slowly consider the situation of the media in Poland, because what's happening now, we can't simply pass over it, and I hope that after the presidential campaign we'll draw some conclusions," he said in response to the Fakt front page.

Axel Springer isn't the only media company under fire.

Beata Mazurek, a member of the European Parliament from PiS, tweeted that Poland's TVN television network, owned by the U.S. Discovery channel, is linked to the WSI, a now-disbanded intelligence agency that PiS had accused of being tied to communists.

That prompted a withering response from Georgette Mosbacher, the U.S. ambassador to Warsaw, who tweeted on Monday: "Shame on you for perpetuating what you know is an absolute lie by suggesting that TVN is WSI. This is beneath a representative of the Polish people."

Mosbacher's intervention prompted a (quickly deleted) tweet from the official profile of the Polish parliament: "A politician has to tuck in her ears in her own country because the ambassador of a foreign country barked?"

It's not the first time Mosbacher has had to defend TVN against PiS, which is furious over the station's political coverage, which it alleges is biased against the ruling party.

The government's hostility toward TVN jars with its effort to cement a very close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump's administration. Duda made a quick trip to the White House ahead of the first round of the presidential election, where he received Trump's backing.

Polarized press

The media are crucial to the fortunes of both Duda and Trzaskowski as opinion polls show the two candidates are essentially tied.

Duda is strongly backed by the taxpayer-financed state media, which has gone on the attack against Trzaskowski, accusing him of fomenting a pro-LGBTQ agenda and preparing to sell the country out to Jewish and German interests. Trzaskowski has promised a dramatic revamp of public media if he wins — prompting howls of outrage from state television and radio.

In a report after the first round of the presidential election on June 28, monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe stated: "In an evidently polarized and biased media landscape, the public broadcaster failed to ensure balanced and impartial coverage, and rather served as campaign tool for the incumbent."

Trzaskowski is backed by other parts of the media. The Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper is publishing a million copies of a report looking critically at Duda's five years in power.

"We look at the scandals, the unfulfilled promises, the style in which he governs as well as all the things that Andrzej Duda would rather forget about," said the paper.

The split between the candidates and their media supporters has made it impossible to hold a presidential debate.

Ahead of the first round of the election, state television held one candidates' debate that seemed designed to reinforce Duda's lines of attack on his challenger. Trzaskowski refused to take part in another debate hosted by state television, leaving Duda to show up alone on Monday evening. Duda, in turn, refused to take part in a debate that was supposed to be organized by TVN and other nongovernment media outlets.

Trzaskowski attended his own one-man debate on Monday where he fielded questions from reporters from 20 news outlets.



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