The US ambassador to Warsaw, Georgette Mosbacher, has intervened after Polish state television made repeated criticism of private broadcaster TVN, which is owned by American media firm Discovery.

Poland’s main public television channel, TVP, has for the last week been running negative reports about TVN – including describing it as a “fake news factory” – after the station was critical of the ruling party. Today, Mosbacher came to TVN’s defence, describing the accusations against it as false.

The conflict stems from coverage of the tenth anniversary of the Smolensk crash, which killed 96 people, including Lech Kaczyński, the then president and twin brother of the leader of Poland’s current ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jarosław Kaczyński.

Jarosław Kaczyński was accused of flouting the government’s own restrictions designed to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. He led a large group of officials, including the prime minister, in a ceremony at the Smolensk memorial in Warsaw, despite gatherings of more than two people being banned. Kaczyński was then pictured visiting his mother’s grave in Warsaw, despite the cemetery being closed to the public.

TVN, whose coverage is often critical of PiS, gave much attention in its news reporting to these incidents, highlighting the alleged hypocrisy and special treatment of Kaczyński and other figures from the ruling camp. The station claimed that relatives of other victims of the Smolensk crash, including an opposition MP, were not given permission to visit graves in the same cemetery.

Commemoration and controversy as Poland marks tenth anniversary of Smolensk crash

In response, public broadcaster TVP – whose news coverage is used to present the government’s narrative – mounted a sustained attack on TVN. On the first four days of last week, its main evening news show broadcast five reports criticising its rival.

TVP claimed that TVN was using “manipulations and half-truths” to mislead viewers. One news segment was headlined “TVN: fake news factory?”

As evidence, TVP noted that, while TVN had suggested that only Kaczyński was allowed to enter Powązki Cemetery, it failed to mention that an independent presidential candidate, Szymon Hołownia, visited the same cemetery on the same day. TVP pointed out that, before mounting his current run for the presidency, Hołownia was an employee of TVN.

Much of TVP’s coverage also focused on claims that TVN was founded by and remains linked to figures from Poland’s former communist regime, which are longstanding allegations made from parts of the Polish right. One discussion show on TVP’s news channel asked: “Was TVN established on the orders of the [communist security] services?”

Such claims fit PiS’s broader narrative that after 1989 Poland did not truly become free. Instead, senior communists, collaborating with certain members of the democratic opposition, are alleged to have maintained their influence in politics, business, the judiciary and the media. This created a “post-communist elite” that Kaczyński has long promised to vanquish.

In response to the criticism, TVN’s main evening news programme, “Fakty”, broadcast a statement on Friday. It said it would “not comment on [TVP’s] lies”, but emphasised that “unlike state television, we are independent” and carry out “true journalism”, including being unafraid to hold those in power to account.

Many in the media came to TVN’s defence. Bogusław Chrabota, editor-in-chief of centre-right daily Rzeczpospolita, described TVP’s coverage as “propaganda”, reports

Gazeta Wyborcza, a liberal newspaper, issued a statement claiming that this was “another attempt to strike against freedom of speech, one of the last democratic values ​​that has remained under PiS rule”.

However, journalists and editors sympathetic towards PiS instead criticised TVN. The editors-in-chief of Sieci and Gazeta Polska, right-wing news weeklies, featured as interviewees in TVP’s news reports, supporting the narrative about TVP’s misleading coverage of the Smolensk commemoration.

Meanwhile, Poland’s commissioner for human rights, Adam Bodnar, expressed concern at TVP’s coverage. He suggested that the channel’s journalists had “manipulated facts” and that this “raises doubts as to their ethics”. Bodnar called on the National Broadcasting Council to initiate an investigation.

Today, the US ambassador also came to TVN’s defence. Though not mentioning TVP specifically, Mosbacher noted that TVN is “part of the Discovery family – a publicly traded US company…committed to transparency, freedom of speech, and independent, responsible journalism. To suggest otherwise is simply false”.

This is not the first time Mosbacher, a longstanding Republican fundraiser appointed as ambassador to Warsaw by President Donald Trump in 2018, has intervened in defence of TVN when it has come under fire from Poland’s ruling camp.

Soon after her appointment, the ambassador wrote to Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki “expressing deep concern over recent allegations made by members of the Polish government against…TVN”. She described it as “astonishing that these public figures would attack journalists who were fulfilling the functions of an independent media”.

Days later, Mosbacher warned Polish MPs during a visit to parliament that the US “will not tolerate any law” that infringes on freedom of the press, according to website Wirtualna Polska. Her words were assumed to be a reference to PiS’s regular promises to “repolonise” the media by reducing foreign influence – a measure that would threaten Discovery’s ownership of TVN.

In 2017 the US State Department criticised the Polish authorities for imposing a record 1.5 million zloty fine against TVN for its coverage of anti-government protests. “This decision appears to undermine media freedom in Poland,” said the State Department. The fine was later withdraw by the National Broadcasting Council, upon which PiS representatives have a majority.

TVN’s “Fakty” and TVP’s “Wiadomości” are Poland’s two main evening news broadcasts. Last month, both drew average audiences of around 3.6 million viewers, reports media news service Wirtualne Media.

Main image: TVP Wiadomości

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