Democracy Digest: Polish Court Rejects Government’s Public Media ‘Putsch’

Elsewhere, Czech inquiry finds police response to shooting was satisfactory; Hungary makes fresh demands in EU to support Ukraine; and a prime ministerial piece of real estate in Bratislava.

On Tuesday, a Warsaw court rejected changes made by new Culture Minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz to the management of public media. One of the first moves by the new government after it assumed power in December was to try to wrench back control of the public media, which had become mouthpieces of PiS during its time in power. The minister invoked commercial law to appoint a new leadership to the state TV, radio and new agency, given that more traditional legal avenues were blocked because of previous changes implemented by PiS. Some legal experts had warned this measure was controversial if not illegal, though others did back the minister. Yet this week, a registry court refused to list Sienkiewicz’s new appointments to the National Court Register (KRS), Poland’s official company register. The court clerk argued it was the National Media Council (RMN), not the minister, who is responsible for making such changes. Sienkiewicz had not relied on the RMN because, as a body created by PiS to take over these functions from the National Audio-Visual Council, the RMN is widely perceived as under PiS control. Indeed, the RMN last month rejected Sienkiewicz’s appointments and made itself an alternative head of state broadcaster TVP. The Culture Ministry said it would appeal the ruling and, since the names of the new leadership were submitted to the registry, Sienkiewicz issued another decision, putting the three main public media outlets into liquidation. That process is not affected by this week’s court ruling.

While TVP is currently functioning with the new leadership appointed by Sienkiewicz and a new team of journalists in charge of the main evening news channels producing materials daily, a group of PiS MPs are maintaining an “occupation” at one of TVP’s premises. On Thursday afternoon, PiS called on supporters from all over the country to join a protest in front of parliament to oppose the changes at the public media channels. “Imagine a minister illegally dismissing the BBC board. Now imagine he replaces them with his own people. Then imagine that news channel is closed down. That is what has been happening in Poland in recent days,” former PM Mateusz Morawiecki said in a statement. “We are witnessing an unprecedented attack on the rule of law. Tusk’s government decided it could take over public television and media by force. This has nothing to do with democratic standards. We have not seen such brutal government action since Communism.” The new government, however, argues that TVP had become a propaganda tool for the old government and that changes to ensure the independence of the public broadcaster were imperative.

A former interior minister and his deputy at the time, now both PiS MPs, who were both finally sentenced this week over abuse-of-office charges, have gone on hunger strike. The police moved Mariusz Kaminski and Maciej Wasik out of temporary detention in Warsaw to two separate locations outside the capital where they will serve their two-year prison terms. Prominent PiS politicians like Morawiecki are appealing to “the democratic Western world” to pay attention to the fate of the two, whom PiS has taken to calling “political prisoners” (the Helsinski Foundation, among others, said applying such a sobriquet to the two politicians is a “deeply unfair distortion”) and calling on supporters to protest. Dominika Wielowieyska, a prominent columnist for Gazeta Wyborcza, pointed out that if he wanted to, President Duda could pardon the two politicians again, as their sentences have now been finalised. And on Thursday, the president announced at a press conference that he was initiating procedures to pardon the two politicians. Flanked by the wives of the two jailed politicians, Duda called on Adam Bodnar, Poland’s new justice minister, to release the politicians immediately.

Czech ‘party gate’ defused; adequate police response to shooting; more stringent gun laws
Czech Labour Minister Marian Jurecka, head of the junior coalition partner KDU-CSL, came under fire this week for having hosted a ministry Christmas party on December 21 as the country’s worst mass shooting was underway at Charles University’s Faculty of Arts, and, crucially, for keeping the event going even after it became clear a horrific tragedy was unfolding not far away. Claiming he had been unaware of what was happening until hours after the attack was broadcast live on every news channel in the country, Jurecka’s belated public apology appears to have only made things worse, fuelling calls among both the public and opposition for his immediate resignation. Evidently unwilling to kick off the new year with a government reshuffle, PM Petr Fiala tried to defuse the affair as quickly as possible and refused to consider his deputy PM’s resignation, arguing his mistake was obvious to all and his mea culpa sufficient. But Jurecka may not be out of the woods yet: according to iDnes.cz, the party is now the subject of a ministerial investigation due to the presumed unlawful consumption of alcohol on ministry premises.

An internal police audit, whose findings were released this week, found no major wrongdoing in the emergency response to last month’s mass shooting in Prague. While generally praised and credited for having prevented a heavier death toll, the police intervention had faced some scrutiny in recent weeks, especially for underestimating the level of the threat and for its failure to secure all faculty sites while focusing resources only on the one building where the gunman was supposed to have attended a lecture. On Tuesday, internal investigators said the intervention had been “quick and professional” and followed all appropriate procedures and regulations. Nevertheless, it noted the police should have communicated better and coordinated their action with university management after being tipped off about a possible threat. A separate review is now being prepared by the General Inspectorate of Security Forces.

As public pressure to tighten the country’s gun laws intensifies in the wake of last month’s shooting, Czech Interior Minister Vit Rakusan said he was in favour of obliging gun sellers to report suspicious purchases to the authorities, and of introducing a mandatory psychological examination for any first-time buyer. New gun ownership legislation has been in the works for several years and is currently in its last reading in the lower chamber of parliament. In response to reports the gunman had a history of mental illness and had legally acquired more than half a dozen firearms in the six months before the attack, legislators are now looking to add last-minute amendments to the reform, which aims to create a centralised digital weapons registry by 2026. More than 300,000 gunowners possess over a million firearms in Czechia, according to the latest official data, and the right to bear arms for self-defence has been enshrined in the Czech constitution since 2021.

Hungary makes fresh demands to support Ukraine; Finnish MEP urges ‘nuclear option’
Hungary’s populist government appears to be capitalising on its obstructive position over EU aid to Ukraine. According to diplomatic sources this week, Hungary is now demanding that the EU’s 50-billion-euro aid package for Ukraine – which it blocked at the December EU summit – be divided into four “envelopes” worth 12.5 billion euros each and be disbursed in annual instalments to Kyiv. Under this scenario, Hungary would lift its veto at the February 1 summit, Euronews reported. But if this scenario fails, the EU will have to prepare an alternative scheme outside the EU’s budget, with individual member states donating money to Ukraine. This idea has already got the clear backing of PM Viktor Orban, who wrote on X: “It’s good to see that the European Commission is preparing a plan B for the 1st of February, according to which financial support given to Ukraine could be managed outside the EU budget. This is a good decision! The Commission’s plan B is the Hungarian plan A!” The partial disbursement would, critics warn, give Hungary an opportunity to put pressure on Ukraine for the next four years, as it could veto the money every year. Yet this, it appears, is not Hungary’s only demand. Reports based on diplomatic sources in Brussels said Orban now wants the EU’s pandemic recovery fund (the RRF) to be extended for another two years. Current EU rules stipulates that any RRF money must be used by member states by August 2026, but most of Hungary’s share remains frozen over rule-of-law problems. Orban clearly feels he is in a position to dictate policy and feels that if he can get the RRF fund extended to 2028, his government would have a reasonable chance of getting and using the money – 10.4 billion euros, of which only 920 million euros has so far been paid out as an advance – especially after the country’s RRF plans were approved by the EU Commission in November. However, any change in the timing and use of the RRF fund would require the support of all member states and the European Parliament. Given the widespread dislike of Orban among EU circles, probably a long shot.

Fed up with Hungarian vetoes, the European Parliament’s chief rule-of-law negotiator, Petri Sarvamaa, this week published a petition calling for Hungary’s voting rights in the Council of the EU to be suspended. Sarvamaa tweeted: “It’s now or never. The EU’s decision-making machinery is simply stuck because of Viktor Orban. The only way to make it work is to withhold Orban of his right to vote in the Council”. This is a “make or break moment for the EU”, according to Sarvamaa. The letter will be sent to European Parliament President Metsola on Friday, but the final decision to strip Hungary of its voting rights must be taken unanimously by the Council, with the support of all the other 26 member states. The European Parliament launched an Article 7 procedure against Hungary in 2018, but the process has been stalled for years. Stripping a member state of its voting rights is considered the nuclear option in the EU and has never been used. But many hope that with the political turnaround in Poland, Orban has lost his main ally and the procedure could now move forward. Others, however, fear that Slovakia’s Robert Fico and even Italy’s Giorgia Meloni will lend Orban a helping hand and prevent a unanimous decision.

A prime ministerial piece of real estate; Slovak presidential poll on March 23
Slovak PM and Smer party leader Robert Fico bought a luxury apartment in Bratislava in December from Smer MP Dusan Munko, an agent who collaborated with the Communist secret police, it was revealed this week. According to a contract anonymously sent to the Sme daily, Fico hasn’t paid anything for the property yet. The apartment, estimated to be worth at least 850,000 euros, was sold to Fico for more than 500,000 euros. Before the PM bought it, he had rented it for three years and is said to have paid a rent smaller than he should have for such a large apartment. Previously, Fico lived in a luxury flat owned by the now-convicted tax fraudster Ladislav Basternak. The PM has avoided answering questions about his new digs, including questions about how he will pay for the property as he should pay the sum in six months. Even though he serves as PM, his income is unlikely to be enough to buy the flat outright without a mortgage. For now, it’s unclear if he has taken one out. But during his Wednesday press conference, he claimed that he saved 250,000 euros thanks to winning lawsuits against some Slovak media. “These are the media that paid me almost 250,000 euros for the untruths they spread about me,” he said. Opposition politician and former PM Igor Matovic opined that Munko may request some favours from Fico, such as contracts, in return.

Meanwhile, the country is gearing up to vote for its sixth president in less than three months’ time. The first round will be held a week before Easter, on March 23. It will most likely be followed by a second round on April 6. The full list of candidates won’t be finalised until the last day of January, but two names are expected to dominate: the pro-Western ex-foreign minister and retired senior diplomat Ivan Korcok, and Speaker and Hlas party leader Peter Pellegrini. Pellegrini, who sits in the populist Smer-led government that refuses to support Ukraine militarily, won’t officially announce his candidacy until next week, but earlier this week already confirmed he will run. Pellegrini, a popular politician who is in the public eye on a daily basis – unlike Korcok – and has a strong online presence, has topped all the recent public opinion polls. It’s not clear how ongoing nationwide anti-government protests (the last ones took place on January 11) opposing changes to the Criminal Code will affect his chances, though. Moreover, Andrej Danko, the leader of his coalition partner, the Slovak National Party (SNS), attacked Pellegrini last week for not being on the campaign trail already, although Danko’s party has not said if, like Smer, it will support Pellegrini. Instead, Danko hinted at the sexuality of Pellegrini, who is widely reputed to be gay. Danko himself might run in the presidential election or the SNS could support the pro-Russian politician and former judge Stefan Harabin, who seems to be more popular among the SNS electorate. Conversely, Korcok has received the support from the strongest opposition and liberal party Progressive Slovakia. He is the candidate most Slovaks abroad would vote for, but only Slovaks who will be in Slovakia on March 23 and/or on April 6 can vote in the presidential elections. President Zuzana Caputova will leave office on June 15 after opting for just one term.

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