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Polish media and opposition fight to save press freedom from state control

Government’s controversial bill ‘would wipe out one of last institutions to hold authorities accountable’ and could lead to US sanctions

Madeline Roache
20 August 2021, 3.19pm
Protests against the bill outside the Polish parliament
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ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

More than 1,000 journalists in Poland have signed an open letter to oppose a controversial media bill in the largest ever initiative of the country’s journalistic community.

Reporters and the opposition say that the bill is an attempt by the ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), to tighten its grip on critical media in a country that has, over the past six years, slipped from 18th place in a World Press Freedom Index compiled by the non-profit group Reporters Without Borders, to 64th, its lowest ever ranking.

The bill, passed by the lower chamber of parliament last week, would prevent non-EU companies from holding a controlling stake in Polish media. The government has claimed that the law “in no way limits media freedom” and is intended to prevent media outlets from being “bought by an entity from Russia, China, or an Arab country”. But in practice it targets one particular, popular news station that is often critical of the government: TVN.

If passed by the senate and President Andrzej Duda, the law will force the American media group Discovery to sell its majority stake in TVN and allow publicly owned companies, such as those in the Polish energy sector, to buy the station out, according to Marta Kotwas, a doctoral researcher specialising in Polish politics and society at University College London.

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Anna Wojcik, a reporter at OKO.press, a Polish non-profit investigative journalism website, said that PiS, which came to power in 2015, has never had so much influence over public media as now, as it has attempted to suppress critical voices through legislation and lawsuits.

The new bill has heightened fears among journalists that Poland is trying to replicate the market regulations that took place in Putin’s Russia and Orbán’s Hungary, where the state took control of most mainstream media. The letter, which was initiated by Mariusz Jałoszewski, OKO.press journalist, and Wojciech Czuchnowski from Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s biggest daily newspaper, described the bill as the final stage of “taking control of one of the last institutions that holds the country’s authorities accountable”.

Risks to credibility and investment

The bill was opposed by the majority of Poland’s opposition parties, including the Agreement party, which was one of PiS’s two junior partners in the government’s United Right coalition since 2015. A day before the media reform vote, the party left the coalition after the prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki fired its leader, Jaroslaw Gowin.

Gowin, a vocal opponent of the PiS leadership, had clashed with Morawiecki over various issues, including the media bill, which he warned would hurt the country’s credibility, damage the investment climate and “above all, expose us to a completely irrational fight with our main security guarantor, the US”.

Agreement’s departure left the government without a majority in the 460-member Sejm, the lower house of parliament, forcing it to scramble for support from other groupings. The bill still has to go through the senate, where the opposition holds a slim majority and will likely reject it. Tomasz Grodzki, speaker of the senate, said on Twitter after the vote: “The democratic majority in the senate will never approve an attack on media independent of the government.”

If the senate rejects the bill, PiS would have to find a bigger majority at the lower house to overrule that veto. But its “majority is no longer secure”, according to Wojcik, and the media bill could be a “test” for the ruling party’s ability to draw in support. In previous years PiS had it very easy, with a clear majority in both parliament and the senate, allowing it to push through legislation in a matter of hours. “The dynamics in parliament have significantly changed and the outcome is not certain,” she added.

The media bill is part of a years-long sustained drive by PiS to ‘repolonise’ private media. “The Polish media should be Polish,” said Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the ruling party’s chairman and the country’s de facto leader, who has long claimed that foreign participants hold outsize influence in Polish public debates.

Since PiS passed laws allowing the government to dismiss broadcasting executives, more than 200 journalists have quit or been fired

In 2016, lawmakers passed legislation that allowed Poland’s government to appoint and dismiss the executives in charge of public television and radio broadcasters. Since then, more than 200 journalists from the public television broadcaster TVP, including prominent news anchors and reporters, have either quit or been fired.

Regional news has also been “severely affected” by the ruling party’s push to repolonise the media, said Kotwas. Last March, the state-controlled Polish oil refinery, PKN Orlen, bought Polska Press, a leading publisher of 20 regional newspapers and more than 500 websites with an online readership of over 17 million, from its German owner.

Although the president of PKN Orlen claimed that there would be no layoffs or political interference at the publishing house, at least eight editor-in-chiefs of Polska Press titles have been pushed out or sacked since the takeover, according to Article 19. “Most of the people made redundant were not in favour of the ruling party,” said Kotwas.

Wojcik said that there has been a considerable rise in lawsuits launched against media outlets by state bodies and NGOs that are supported directly or indirectly by the government. “The main purpose is to drain the financial and emotional resources of papers” and to make journalists’ work more difficult, she said. OKO.press has had at least seven lawsuits brought against it by wealthy business people, companies and politicians, and Gazeta Wyborca has faced 57 lawsuits. “Newspapers are paying more in legal costs to check whether articles could cause legal trouble – it’s a constraint,” added Wojcik.

Now, the ruling party has set its sights on TVN, “one of the few remaining independent TV channels that is critical of the government”, said Alberto Alemanno, professor of EU law at HEC Paris. Some Poles describe it as “the country’s best political opposition”, said Aleks Szczerbiak, a professor of politics at Sussex University. TVN’s evening news programme was the most watched in Poland in the first half of 2021, with an audience share of more than 20%.

PiS claimed that the law was needed to stop hostile countries such as Russia and China from taking control of Polish media, an argument that Alemanno described as “far-fetched”, adding: “There hasn’t been any attempt by Russia or any other autocratic government to enter into the Polish media.”

Straining international relations

The pressure on TVN, which is one of the biggest US investments in Poland, threatens to strain ties with the US and further antagonise relations with the EU. “This matter is causing officials at high levels to question the state of Poland and US relations. Yet Poland has never needed American and European support more in economic and security terms,” said Alemanno.

Since the Biden administration came in, relations between Poland and the US have “considerably worsened”, said Szczerbiak, with Washington recently criticising PiS officials over their anti-LGBTQ+ rights rhetoric. Last month, Poland condemned a deal that the US and Germany made to allow the completion of Nord Stream 2, a controversial Russian gas pipeline to Europe, without further US sanctions. Poland, among other countries in Europe, argued that Nord Stream 2 could give Russia too much leverage over national European security.

Washington has warned Warsaw that the media law would inevitably harm the country’s “defence, business and trade relations”. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was “deeply troubled” by the passage of the bill, which “threatens media freedom and could undermine Poland’s strong investment climate”. The US is considering imposing sanctions on Poland if the media law is passed and Discovery said it was taking legal action against Warsaw over what it called a “discriminatory” campaign against TVN.

In a tweet on 12 August, Vera Jourova, a member of the European Commission, said: “Media pluralism and diversity of opinions are what strong democracies welcome, not fight against. The draft Polish broadcasting law sends a negative signal.”

The media bill is only the latest point of contention between the EU and Poland, which have been at loggerheads for years over Warsaw’s dismantling of checks and balances, including its controversial judicial reforms, which include allowing judges to be investigated and sanctioned over their rulings.

The stakes are high for Poland as new budget rules now allow the EU to stem the flow of subsidies to member states that violate the bloc’s basic rule of law principles. The EU’s executive arm has already held up approval of Poland’s COVID-19 recovery plan, which puts €23.9bn of stimulus grants set aside for Warsaw at risk.

According to Alemanno, the media bill has revealed that Poland’s political leadership “lacks awareness and lucidity”. He added that the conflict around the reform was part of a much wider clash between “a liberal, multipolar world, versus a much more authoritarian, nationalistic one” and the outcome of the bill would be considered a “case study” on the state of democracy in Poland.

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