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Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights comments on regulatory penalty imposed on TVN

According to the HFHR, the authorisation to impose an exceptionally severe financial penalty on TVN, a private television broadcaster, given by the National Broadcasting Council to the Council’s Chair in relation to “the way in which TVN24 news channel covered the events in an around the Polish Parliament on 16-18 December 2016” and unaccompanied by any detailed justification for this decision, constitutes a substantial violation of the freedom of speech.

Reporting on parliamentary works and public assemblies – key aspects of news journalism

In its position statement, the HFHR emphasised that the penalty concerns the reporting of the so-called parliamentary crisis of December 2016 and the relates social protests, the events that raised substantial and understandable interests among members of the public.

Provision of coverage of both parliamentary works and public assemblies is a basic duty of the media that perform the role of the “public watchdog”; this aspect of news journalism bears a key importance in the proper functioning of a democratic state ruled by law. In Selmani and Others v. Macedonia and Pentikäinen v. Finland, the European Court of Human Rights directly points to state authorities’ obligation to ensure the freedom of reporting such events. In light of the above judgments, the NBC’s decision seems irreconcilable with the standards of freedom of speech developed by the Strasbourg Court.

Media’s control function does not include duty to be government mouthpiece

The protection given to the freedom of expression in the private media industry is all the more important against the background of the 2016 public media “reform”, which effectively deprived the public media outlets of the ability to ensure unbiased coverage of public activities. After the “reform”, private broadcasters became the only source of anti-government criticism or information inconvenient for the government. In such circumstances, exposing private media to any form of harassment, including regulatory penalties for covering important public events may be perceived as an attempt to limit the pluralism of the Polish media market.

“We fear that this action is intended not only to discipline a specific television outlet but also create a broader ‘chilling effect’ that will have an impact on other broadcasters that may consider properly performing their role in a democracy by, say exercising the control function towards public authorities. This function may not involve being a mouthpiece for the government as the essence of the public watchdog role is to cover all publicly important events, including those that raise significant social emotions, and also in a manner that involves a negative assessment of the government’s actions”, reads the statement.

NBC decision to be reviewed by newly created Supreme Court’s chamber?

The HFHR is additionally concerned about an effective and independent judicial review of the National Broadcasting Council’s decision. These concerns are related to the currently debated Supreme Court Bill, judges of the newly created Chamber of Extraordinary Review and Public Affairs of the Supreme Court will ultimately decide cases in which an appeal is filed against a decision of the NBC Chair. The Chamber will be appointed by the currently overhauled National Council of the Judiciary, itself selected by politicians.

Plea to National Broadcasting Council

The statement continues: “Given the above considerations, we call on the National Broadcasting Council to fulfill its statutory duties with integrity and to respect the standards of freedom of speech, right to information and public interest in the radio and television sectors, the obligations imposed on the Council by Article 213(1) of the Constitution”.

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