The decision sets a dangerous precedent, giving authorities the power to fine media as they please.

Poland’s National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT), the country’s media regulator, has delivered a hefty fine to one of the nation’s leading independent radio stations, Radio Zet. The fine, mounting to PLN 476,000 (about €107,200), was for what KRRiT classified as “disinformation” harmful to the national interest. The fine has ignited a fierce controversy and sparked debate about the state of media freedom in Poland.

Radio Zet has been fined due to the broadcasting of a report on December 22, 2022, which insinuated a loss of confidence towards Poland by both the United States and Ukraine. The focal point of the news story revolved around the transit of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, through Poland on his way to meet with Joe Biden in Washington.

According to the report, which relies on the account of the station’s correspondent, Mariusz Gierszewski, it was asserted that the Polish security services were unaware of Zelensky’s itinerary in Poland. The rationale put forth was that both Ukrainians and Americans had become distrustful of Poland due to an unfortunate incident involving a grenade launcher gifted by a Ukrainian official to the Polish chief of police, which inadvertently exploded in the latter’s office in Warsaw.

Radio Zet has vehemently disputed the imposed penalty and the allegations leveled against it. The station staunchly asserts that the information it disseminated adhered strictly to the mandated standards, sourcing it from two “reliable sources”. These sources, exercising their right to confidentiality, opted to remain anonymous.

Radio Zet contended that the data furnished to the KRRiT by Stanisław Żaryn, the spokesperson for Poland’s security services, and the interior ministry, was deemed “general and evasive”. The station asserted that no concrete evidence existed to suggest any violation of Polish legislation.

According to Maciej Świrski, the head of the KRRiT and a nominee of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, the station’s reporting has been deemed to violate Poland’s broadcasting law. This legislation specifically prohibits broadcasts that endorse actions that are in opposition to the law, the welfare of the Polish nation, or values that contradict accepted moral and societal standards.

Professor Tadeusz Kowalski, a member of the KRRiT, has disclosed that the decision to levy the fine was unilaterally taken by Świrski, without any consultation with the other four Council members.

According to Świrski, he was informed by Żaryn that the allegations aired by Radio Zet were erroneous and amounted to a deliberate endeavor to defame the Polish government. Furthermore, the interior ministry contended that Radio Zet had failed to seek confirmation from them prior to disseminating the information.

In an interview with the conservative news outlet wPolityce, Świrski posited that the dissemination of erroneous information by Radio Zet had become part of the ongoing hybrid warfare being waged by Russia and Belarus against Poland. The primary objective behind this insidious campaign, Świrski argued, was to subvert the nation’s governing bodies and deride their actions.

Opposition senator Jadwiga Rotnicka criticized the regulator’s recent decision, decrying what she perceived as a clear case of double standards. Rotnicka highlighted the stark contrast between the substantial fine imposed on Radio Zet and the lack of repercussions faced by the state broadcaster TVP, widely regarded as a government mouthpiece, which is never penalized for regularly “hounding” “the opposition, sexual minorities and social groups that PiS does not like.”

The Zet-related incident adds to the growing concerns about media freedom in Poland. Radio Zet, alongside another station, Tok FM, which had both been fined by Świrski, are part-owned by Agora, the publisher of Gazeta Wyborcza, a leading daily newspaper known for its critical stance towards the PiS. Concerns have been raised about the perceived bias of Świrski and the KRRiT towards the ruling party and its allies.

Radio Zet is known as a trusted news source in Poland. A Google-funded study found that Radio Zet is the third most trusted news source among major media outlets in Poland.

Mateusz Smolarek, the Editor-In-Chief of Radio Zet, has announced the station’s intention to challenge the imposed fine through legal means. Smolarek has emphasized the paramount significance of media freedom and the fundamental right of all Polish citizens to access trustworthy information. He has affirmed the station’s unwavering commitment to combating dissemination of false information and delivering accurate news.

The KRRiT’s decision is highly perilous, setting a worrisome precedent. It grants the government the power to levy fines against any media outlet that dares to criticize it, under the guise of combating disinformation. A recent report by CIMA, a non-governmental organization based in Washington, D.C., has revealed that disinformation laws worldwide are frequently ambiguous, enabling governments to arbitrarily define prohibited content and impose penalties on journalists, even imprisoning them at their own discretion.

Photo: Screenshot of Maciej Świrski’s post on Twitter (MediaPowerMonitor)