The main evening news on Polish state broadcaster TVP yesterday reported on the first Pole to visit the United States since the requirement for visas was scrapped. Some, however, accused the station of misleading viewers after it emerged that the traveller featured in the report was a TVP employee.
Last week, it was announced that from 11 November Poland would be admitted to the US Visa Waiver Program, allowing Poles to visit the US for up to 90 days for business or tourism without obtaining a visa. Previously, Poland had been one of only five European Union countries excluded from the programme.
Access to the Visa Waiver Program was widely celebrated in Poland, a close US ally that has long been seeking visa-free travel. It was also hailed by the government as a foreign-policy success (though critics argue that Poland’s entry to the programme came about simply because it fell below the statutory 3% visa-rejection threshold required to qualify).
It is a great feeling to welcome passengers traveling on one of the first direct flights to the US after Poland's inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program! This is a historic moment! https://t.co/9euqxRzvvt
— Georgette Mosbacher (@USAmbPoland) November 12, 2019
On 12 November, the main evening news on TVP featured a report on “the first Polish citizen in history to cross the US border without a visa”, which the station described as an “emotional” moment.
Cameras followed the man in question, Marcin Bakalarski, from his departure from Poland to his arrival in Los Angeles.
Throughout the broadcast, Bakalarski appeared to be a normal member of the public. However, internet users and media outlets quickly discovered that he was actually a TVP employee.
In response to the controversy, the head of news coverage at TVP, Jacek Olechowski, admitted that Bakalarski is an employee of the broadcaster. He said, however, that the news report was designed as “a guide showing what should be done to fly to the US without a visa”.
Some commentators had also pointed out that Polish visitors to the US are still required to register through the ESTA authorisation system. It is recommended to do this at least 72 hours before travel, but Bakalarski registered just after midnight on 11 November and then flew later the same day.
Olechowski, however, confirmed that Bakalarski had followed the “standard ESTA procedure”. Others have noted that it is not compulsory to register early with ESTA, and most applications are approved within a minute of being submitted.
Dementuję fejkniusa jakoby lot pierwszego Polaka bez wizy do USA pokazany przez @WiadomosciTVP był „ustawką”. Red. Bakalarski przeszedł standardową procedurę ESTA jak każdy podróżny. Materiał miał charakter poradnikowy, pokazujący co należy zrobić żeby polecieć do USA bez wizy
— Jarek Olechowski (@OlechowskiJarek) November 13, 2019
This is not the first time TVP, which is a government mouthpiece, has failed to inform viewers that a person featured in its news coverage is actually one of its employees. In May this year, a man presented as a “journalist from Belgium” was shown being interviewed in French. He accused Donald Tusk (an opponent of the government) of “damaging Poland” and “having Germany in his heart more than any other country”.
However, his social media accounts revealed that he actually worked at TVP and speaks Polish.
His social media reveal he actually works at TVP and speaks Polish https://t.co/ppnxBnOIXL
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) May 26, 2019
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland and assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, The Independent and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.