Since coming into power by an overall majority in 2015, the right-wing Christian-nationalist PiS party has engaged in a systematic effort to weaken and destabilize independent media critical of the government, creating a severe concern for political and cultural media diversity in Poland.
State Broadcaster Takeover
In 2016, the government began by eroding the journalistic independence of the national broadcaster Telewizja Polska (TVP). President Andrzej Duda signed the controversial law giving the treasury minster powers to choose broadcasting chefs, who have in effect appointed only pro-government executives and journalists. TVP has since ceased to function as a public broadcaster, as defined by the Council of Europe recommendation of the Committee of Ministers to member States on public service media governance.
Legitimate functioning of public service broadcasting should be based on the principles of “independence, accountability, effective management, transparency and openness as well as responsiveness and responsibility”. Instead, TVP has become a government mouthpiece, routinely praising PiS’s achievements on the evening ‘news’.
PiS allocated PLN 2 bn (EUR 445 mln) of taxpayer’s money to TVP shortly before the 2020 Presidential election, in a highly criticized move. The independent watchdog Press-Service Monitoring Mediow found that, in two weeks shortly before the first round of elections, 97% of TVP’s reporting on the incumbent Andrzej Duda was positive, compared to reporting on his challenger Mr Trzaskowski which was negative 87% of the time.
The Presidential race’s highly imbalanced reporting highlighted TVP’s lack of journalistic integrity and lack of independence from the government.
The state broadcaster has also faced multiple accusations of inflammatory material targeted at women’s rights protestors, the LGBT and migrant communities. As a result of court orders, TVP was made to take down from its online platform an anti-LGBT film titled Invasion and apologise for its “one-sided, selective and unacceptable” representation of immigrants.
The takeover of TVP marked the first step of many that put the PiS government at odds with the European Union member State’s positive obligation to ensure media pluralism under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
All the while, the government continues to target remaining independent media outlets through what a recent report conducted by the Media Freedom Rapid Response characterized as a policy of “economic strangulation”. From blocking unfavoured mergers, imposing licencing charges, penalties and fines to retroactive taxes—which prominent free media spokespeople describe as “arbitrary and selective”.
The government has also drained critical media outlets of state advertising revenues that are an essential source of their income. Polityka and Newsweek Polska, both titles critical of the government, have seen a 98-100% drop in state advertising revenues since 2015.
PiS has politicized the allocation of state advertising to such an extent that the liberal newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza was excluded entirely from a public awareness campaign about COVID-19, denying readers of potentially life-saving health information.
Additionally, the government utilizes its administrative powers to weaken and destabilize independent media whenever possible. Numerous lawsuits, classified as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPS), have been brought forward by government-controlled agencies, intending to drain newspapers from financial resources.
Crucially, independent media providers face these lawsuits under conditions of compromised judicial independence, since Poland’s significant detrition of the rule of law under the PiS government. Poland has been on a collision course with the European Commission over failure to fulfil its obligations under Article 19(1) of the Treaty on European Union and Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which spell out member State’s obligation to uphold the rule of law and citizens’ right to a free and fair trial.
The government’s efforts to destabilize independent media have had a significant impact on media freedom in Poland. In 2020, Poland fell to the 62nd position out of 180 countries in the conducted by Reporters Without Borders. This is a dramatic fall from 18th place in 2015 and Poland’s lowest score to date, coming in behind Armenia and Niger.
Under the Disguise of COVID-19 Solidarity
The government’s most recent bid against independent journalism took the form of a proposed tax levy on advertising revenues ranging from 2 to 15 per cent depending on the media outlet’s size, type of outlet, and product advertised.
The government justified the proposed legislation as a “solidarity payment” that would help pay for the national health service and government-controlled culture fund, which have been severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
The proposal sparked a nation-wide media protest on the 10th of February, in which all independent outlets interrupted their regular broadcasts for 24 hours, showing only black screens with a message that read, “this is where your favourite show was supposed to be”. Piotr Muller, a government spokesman, commented on the protest as a reaction of private enterprises who want to “avoid taxes”.
However, in light of PiS’s broader efforts to curb independent journalism, the move is seen by media organizations as a continuation of the government’s policy of economic strangulation against them. More than 40 publishers opposed the governments proposed legislation in an open letter, warning against the danger it poses for media pluralism due to the burden’s “asymmetrical and selective” nature.
The government has not proposed to extend the “solidarity payment” to other industries. The letter cites that while the state broadcaster TVP received PLN 2 bn of taxpayers’ money, private media is expected to be charged with an additional PLN 1 bn if the legislation comes into force.
The 24-hour media blackout did prove effective as international attention caused the government to back away from implementing the proposed tax in its current form.
However, in the broader context of PiS’s systematic assault on Poland’s media pluralism, it feels a modest victory. It is likely the government will attempt to reintroduce an only slightly revised version of the legislation at its next political convince, when international eyes are be focused elsewhere.
Erosion of media pluralism via “repolonization” on a collision course with the EU’s internal market law
The proposed “solidarity payment” legislation come shortly after state-controlled energy provider Orlen bought Polska Press from German Verlagsgruppe Passau, giving the government indirect control over 20 of Poland’s 24 regional newspapers as well as numerous online news websites. The deal is considered a major blow to independent local journalism, furthering the erosion of media pluralism.
Now, the long-rumoured “repolonization” bill, which would restrict the allowance of shares that foreign investors can hold in domestic media companies to between 15 and 30%, is being drafted by the Ministry of Culture. If passed, the bill would, in practice, severely weaken Poland’s currently largest independent media outlets like ONET.pl and TVN24 owned by the Swiss-German Ringier Axel Springer Polska and U.S.’s Discovery, respectively.
Any bill that restricts market access for EU companies will be at odds with the EU’s internal market law that safeguards fair competition among member States. The bill had in the past been considered too politically contentious to be implemented.
However, the prepared draft sends a worrying signal. The PiS government is growing confident in challenging EU internal market regulations.
The erosion of media pluralism and independence in Poland poses a significant challenge for the EU, which has been reluctant to address it. Previously, the European Commission was loudly-silent as Orban’s government curbed independent journalism in Hungry, setting a precedent for Poland to follow. The PiS government’s efforts to weaken independent media have been intentionally piecemeal to avoid a reaction from Brussels.
However, together, they pave the way towards the disappearance of independent journalism in Poland, threatening its democracy and, increasingly, the European internal market’s integrity.
It is time the sleeping giant awakes as independent media in Poland and the right to freedom of expression, a core value protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, is at risk of “death by a thousand cuts”.