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POLAND: US Ambassador's letter to PM Morawiecki

At the beginning of the year, TVN (a commercial television station, subsidiary of the US-based Discovery Inc.) aired a footage of a Polish neo-Nazi group celebrating Hitler’s birthday. The footage prompted the Polish prosecutor’s office to launch an investigation – it is illegal to propagate Nazism and other totalitarian regimes in Poland. Earlier this month, other media outlets reported that the event was allegedly partially funded and instigated by TVN journalists. The station argued that the journalists were carrying out undercover investigative actions and denied any illegal activities. The cameraman involved was subsequently visited by the Internal Security Agency (ABW) on 23 of November and was summoned to the prosecution where he was supposed to be charged with propagating Nazism. Following public outcry, however, the prosecution backed out on 25 November.

The recently-appointed US Ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher, became involved in the matter. On 19 November Mosbacher wrote a letter to Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, arguing for the freedom of the media and criticizing top PiS figures who accused TVN of staging the neo-Nazi event. Mosbacher also argued “It is baffling that members of the government now appear more interested in casting doubt on the motives of the journalists and attempting to associate TVN with extremism.” On 21 November, Mosbacher visited the Sejm where she appeared at a session of the US-Poland parliamentary group. There, she warned MPs against restricting media freedom and asked about the potential of a media system reform – PiS has long spoken about reforming and repolonising the media but has put the planned reform on hold. As a result of the appearance, Deputy PM Jarosław Gowin cancelled a scheduled meeting with the US Ambassador. Gowin argued that Mosbacher has stepped out of her role, attempting to directly influence the legislative process.

On 27 November, the letter Mosbacher sent to PM Morawiecki was leaked to the media. According to unconfirmed media reports, the letter was leaked from government circles. The tone of the letter, its form (including an incorrect spelling of the PM’s surname), and the recent Sejm appearance has initially triggered a wave of harsh criticism against Mosbacher from right-wing outlets and some PiS politicians. After the initial chaotic reaction from PiS figures on Tuesday, the mood was toned down on Wednesday by the PM’s Chancellery. The government’s spokesperson Joanna Kopcińska stated that PM Morawiecki will not comment on the letter. She also argued that relations between Poland and the US are “on very good terms and one incident will not change this”.

When Mosbacher initially assumed her role as US Ambassador in the summer, top PiS figures argued that new direct channels have been opened between Warsaw and the Trump administration. Initial top-level contacts have proven robust, aiding the PiS narrative of strengthened relations with the US. Still, recent events have shown the ruling party that Mosbacher seeks to actively defend US business interests in Poland. Furthermore, Mosbacher is not a professional diplomat, and depends on her business experience rather than careful political manoeuvring. For many PiS figures, this has proven difficult in view of the narrative that the party established the first Polish government independent from foreign pressures.

In terms of internal politics, this incident has weakened Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro. Ziobro was the main figure spearheading legal action and the political narrative against TVN. PiS also has to carefully balance between their communication to voters – who might accuse the government of bowing down to US demands – and upkeeping good relations with their most important strategic ally, represented by Ambassador Mosbacher.  PiS will also have to find a new way of coping with Mosbacher’s candour, so as to prevent further inflammatory comments from hard-line party members in the event of further incidents.