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Freedom and Manipulation. The Future of the Polish Press

When the Polish state-controlled refiner PKN Orlen announced it was buying the media group Polska Press from German Verlagsgruppe Passau, it was a disquieting development regarding the future of independent journalism in Poland. Yet in no way unprecedented. It was simply the latest of a series of strategic moves made by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) to realise their objective of reforming the private media sector through a political programme of – what they have coined as – the ‘repolonisation’ and ‘deconcentration’ of independent journalism.

As an EU member, the Polish government cannot pass any official legislation that would stand against the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union as set out by the European Convention in 1999. But this has not stopped it from actively portraying foreign media companies who own Polish media titles, such as the Verlagsgruppe Passau, as a direct threat to Polish sovereignty. As the founder and leader of PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński, stated shortly after President Andrzej Duda’s re-election in 2020, ‘The media in Poland should be Polish.’

In itself, PiS’s objective of deconcentration is a rather paradoxical one. As the recent transaction made by PKN Orlen shows, the centre of media concentration has simply shifted from an independent media group to a government-owned enterprise that now controls the information reaching an estimated 17.4 million readers – out of a population of 38 million. If anything, it is the result of this shifting effect that poses the biggest threat to journalistic freedom in Poland today. There still exists a good measure of external pluralism in the Polish media sector in terms of the breadth of coverage across the politico-ideological spectrum. The Western free-market ideology adopted after 1989 led to ‘the rise of ownership’ and devolved a lot of the media powers originally ascribed to the state. However, as we see today, the government’s efforts to co-opt the public media sector are a clear attempt to reinstate the powers lost to them and pose a growing threat to external pluralism.

The growth of polarisation and the decline of journalistic freedoms

The government’s increasing influence beyond the management of public television and radio broadcasters it acquired in 2015 – such as the TV channel TVP – has catalysed a wave of polarisation across the Polish press. Ironically, Article 21 of the Radio and Television Broadcasting Act sets out the mission of public television to be ‘characterized by pluralism, objectivity, balance, independence, and innovation’. In reality, the government’s approach to independent media of ‘you are with us, or against us’ has orchestrated a largely artificial dichotomy between media outlets, and has led to a growing lack of internal pluralism within each of them. The impact of this cannot be undermined. TV stations like TVP enjoy a widespread reception as one of the key sources of information.

Such a polarised climate is a rather clever tool that has allowed PiS to claim legitimacy for their mode of conduct whenever an act of ‘opposition’ arises. One does not need to look far for an example of this than the recent protests against the decision of the Constitutional Tribunal. During the protests, many journalists were pepper-sprayed, and detained by the police forces, despite clearly displaying their press cards. Agata Grzybowska was arrested, detained, and interrogated for several hours under the abstruse charge of ‘violati[ng]… a policeman’s physical integrity’ by using her camera flash whilst covering the protests in Warsaw for ‘Gazeta Wyborcza.’ While Grzybowska has covered many conflicts without an issue – from Syria to Ukraine – her detention in her home country signals a great worry for the future of journalistic freedoms.

Methods of manipulation, exploitation of the courts, and the democratic mask

The emergent use of police brutality against journalists exemplifies the government’s identification of any coverage of criticism of government policy - even by an independent news source - as an act of opposition in itself. The targeting of journalists during the protests can be equated to similar instances during the pro-democratic protests in Hong Kong and to the actions of other growingly authoritarian governments such as Hunargian Fidesz. The mechanisms of manipulation employed by the government have evolved to include not just legal, but also physical, methods of coercion.

On the legal front, the current government’s continual transgression of the rule of law has led to some courts weaponizing Article 212 of the criminal code; allowing them to class the freedom of speech as an act of defamation, and to sentence journalists for up to a year in prison if they are found to be guilty. Even though most courts do not go so far as to exercise this new-found interpretation of the article, the dynamic acts mostly as a deterrent. The effect has been that of independent media outlets employing a great degree of self-censorship of any material that could be considered politically anarchical in the eyes of PiS, to keep out of the courts.

Contrary to what our primary instinct may be as to how an authoritarian-style government operates, the recent presidential elections proved conducive to PiS’s success. The ability to harness a political mandate in the domestic sphere has provided them with a means of claiming their status as a legitimate leading authority on the world stage. Thus, despite the government’s continuous string of largely undemocratic activities, it has been rather hard for other countries and the EU to be able to intervene in a democratic fashion themselves.

Where do we go from here?

To find a long-term solution to the growing issue of undemocratic activity in Poland, it, first of all, needs to be solved on the domestic level. Let’s not forget that PiS tried to outlaw the avenues used to access abortion before in 2016 when it endorsed the Stop Aborcji [Stop Abortion] movement and that – despite the great size of last year’s protests – there is no sign that the overall objectives of PiS have changed. However, the magnitude of the recent protests does show just how much is at stake. They are not just about abortion, but being fuelled and strengthened by the widespread discontent with the way the government continues to expand its sphere of influence.

To truly manifest the democratic values originally aspired for Poland since her disintegration from communist ideology, there is a pivotal need to preserve the mechanisms of pluralism and the freedom of the press. Especially now, with COVID-19 when we have found ourselves increasingly reliant on mass means of communication. It is crucial to see how, arguably more than ever before, the freedom of speech is dependent on the freedom of the press. PiS is already aware of the power of this. It would not be an issue if they did not.

The precarious position that the freedom of speech finds itself in is no longer a merely hypothetical matter. Reporters Without Borders ranked Poland 62nd out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom index - down from its previous rank of 18th in 2015. And it does not look as if this trend is close to being overturned any time soon. What Poland needs right now to once-and-for-all establish itself as more than just a quasi-democracy, is a viable alternative to the current government in power – and being overly fussy as to what that entails does not help realise this objective.

In a true democracy, a government’s strength lies in its ability to respond to changeeffectively, not in its goals to affect the course of change to preserve its strength. With the freedom of the press in Poland dwindling under the auspice of manipulation, the ability to participate in political change follows suit.

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