Poland: Freedom of the press in free fall


The direction has been pointing constantly downwards since 2015. In the international ranking on press freedom by "Reporters Without Borders", Poland was 18th at the time, but has now slipped to 62nd place. 44 places in five years. The changes in the media landscape are admittedly occurring more subtly than in Hungary, for example. But restrictions on the work of journalists in the country are becoming increasingly noticeable.

freedom of the press, freedom of opinion

"I'm slowly running out of comments", wrote a former Polish correspondent in Germany on Twitter. The public broadcaster Trójka, which used to be popular among intellectuals, is firing more journalists. This time it was the music editor Anna Gacek. After 19 years, she had to go. No one explained why. Wojciech Mann, the icon of music journalism, thereupon left the editorial office in protest. A few weeks ago, Dariusz Rosiak, who ran a cult programme called "Report on the State of the World", was fired; others had been fired before him. Trójka, like the other state-run media, is consistently brought on track, the replacement of editors in all areas – even if it is "only" music – is part of this strategy. The former editors have now launched a private online radio station, financed by crowdfunding.

The free press in Poland has changed since the national conservative party "Law and Justice" PiS is in government. Right at the beginning of the first legislative period, the public service media were transformed de facto into so-called "national" state media under several media laws. The boards of the media companies were newly appointed, the "National Council of Radio Broadcasting and Television", an independent supervisory body, was abolished and replaced by a "national media council", the majority of which was staffed by the PiS. This body has not proved to be an excessive control body for maintaining qualitative standards in reporting, but merely serves as a stage for factional fighting within the government camp. This also shows that the ruling party sees the media as a transmission belt, but not as a social control organ.

Several journalists lost their jobs because of their critical attitude towards the government. The recruitment of the new staff, who were considered "loyal", was partly carried out from right-wing conservative media. The main task of the public media in Poland, which should actually reflect all political options, is now to generate strong support for the government – and to deliberately devalue the activities of parties, organisations and individuals critical of the government, who are also directly attacked with a disregard for their personal rights. As happened, for example, to the President of the City of Gdansk Paweł Adamowicz, who was assassinated, or the Polish Ombudsman Adam Bodnar. Polish television's first channel and other public media have mutated into a propaganda tool of the government, notes "Reporters Without Borders" in its latest ranking on press freedom. It is one of the reasons, besides the libel suits against journalists, for Poland's worse performance than in the previous year. Year after year, the report of the media freedom organisation compares the situation of journalists in 180 countries. The classification is based on questionnaires for experts and media representatives as well as on surveys of violent crimes or prison sentences against journalists. The two categories result in point values for each country, which determine the final ranking.

As every year, the report also called the Polish Centre for the Monitoring of Press Freedom into the arena. It is affiliated with the Polish Journalists' Association, to which PiS-related media workers belong. The accusation is that the NGO, "Reporters without Borders", is biased and its decision-makers politicised. For their analysis, they had only considered those arguments which would confirm the initial thesis of the dwindling freedom of the press in Poland. All other facts were disregarded. Thus the authors of the report would clearly support one side of the political dispute in Poland and be critical of the government.

In contrast to Hungary, for example, Poland still has a diverse media landscape. The full range of private media is still in operation. In addition, previously "apolitical" private broadcasters, especially radio, have now included information critical of the government in their programming. There is a multitude of so-called citizen media that emerged from civil society involvement as a kind of counter-public sphere. They are mainly represented in the online sector as a reaction to the very limited critical reporting by public broadcasters. Among its decision-makers are many of the dismissed journalists.

The de facto diversity of the media is used by many politicians of the ruling party and its supporters as an argument when criticism is voiced from abroad of the successively progressive restriction of freedom of the press. It is often forgotten that this is not only defined by the diversity of the newspaper kiosk or the number of private stations. The advertising policy of financially influential large state companies, such as the oil company Orlen, leads to a preference for publications close to the PiS. In newspapers critical of the government, such as the newspaper "Gazeta Wyborcza", no advertisements are placed by the state. In addition, at the state-owned Post Office or at Orlen's petrol stations, critical newspapers have disappeared completely from the product range or are only offered in very small numbers. Governmental institutions were encouraged to cancel subscriptions to these newspapers. The media critical of the government are increasingly coming under enormous economic pressure, which limits their work. In addition, the government repeatedly looks for ways to take over or influence private media in order to bring them into line. It did not succeed at a large radio station "Zet", but it did partially succeed at the TV station Polsat.

The government repeatedly speaks of the "renationalisation", "recolonisation" or "demonopolisation" of the Polish media landscape, which has been characterised by a fairly large proportion of foreign capital since 1989. The PiS tends to equate the case of foreign capital participation with the possibility of state or secret service influence on the media in question, which would then represent "non-Polish" interests and intervene in internal Polish affairs. The main players in the market have always been German (Polska Press, which controls about 80 per cent of a network of regional newspapers) and American (TVN TV channel). But given the harsh reactions from Washington and Brussels, this has not yet happened. However, every critical report from abroad is used to put the issue of "renationalisation" of the media back on the agenda.

In addition to the wave of redundancies in the state media, there is also harassment in the daily work of journalists. Media workers who are critical of the government do not get appointments with politicians of the ruling party, are insulted when requesting information, and sometimes even threatened. After attempted restrictions on media access to the Sejm met with considerable resistance in December 2016, government representatives and right-wing publicists are now attempting to intimidate journalists critical of the government, primarily by means of legal and costly libel suits, but also an expanded interpretation of criminal law, see https://rsf.org/en/news/poland-journalist-investigated-coverage-gdansk-mayors-assassination. Although the PiS has not yet progressed far enough with its restructuring of the judicial system to be able to bring about any judgments in its favour in the general jurisdiction, this practice has already left its mark, because publishing houses under economic pressure are increasingly shying away from taking journalistic or media-related risks.

The working environment for Polish media and journalists has become much more difficult in recent years. Fortunately, there haven’t been any physical assaults. But especially in legal terms, media people are under increasing pressure. In addition, the general brutalisation of the political discourse culture – directly linked to the political and media measures of the PiS government – massively impairs journalistic activity because professionalism is denied and partisan behaviour is attributed to it by various parties. The presumably paid troll-driven hate and hatred campaigns on the Internet also cause increased stress and fear among those affected.

Nevertheless, critical reporting is still being done. The most recent example is the upcoming presidential election. It is scheduled for May 10. The government is sticking to it despite the Corona pandemic. The election ordinance is currently being changed, the bill is in the hands of the Senate. For the first time, the election is to be held exclusively by postal vote. An amendment which, according to experts, is not in conformity with the constitution. Due to the restrictions on public life, only the incumbent Andrzej Duda can actually conduct the election campaign in the state media. The opposition candidates have no access to it. Election observers have already expressed their concerns about holding democratic elections at this time.

The article has first been published on www.boell.de in German. Translation by Alison Frankland.