As populists hold on to power in Poland, press freedom fears rise

Journalists are worried about the ruling PiS party's vague pre-election pledge to usher in 'new media order'.

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    Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the governing PiS speaks to supporters following first results in parliamentary elections on October 13, 2019 in Warsaw [Carsten Koall/Getty Images]
    Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the governing PiS speaks to supporters following first results in parliamentary elections on October 13, 2019 in Warsaw [Carsten Koall/Getty Images]

    Update: October 18, 2019 

    Since this story was published Pawel Lewandowski, deputy culture minister, told Al Jazeera that his earlier quote, which was printed in other media and republished here in the eighth paragraph, contained a mistranslation. Instead of "Polish authorities", he claims he said "Polish people".

    In his comments to Al Jazeera, he explained: "The media is the fourth branch of power along with judiciary, executive and legislative, and should be controlled by citizens like all other powers. 

    "Poland has not introduced any antidemocratic laws, especially related to freedom of speech or freedom of press, and does not intend to.

    "The government liberalised many obsolete post-Soviet provisions in the media law. For instance we eliminated obligation to authorise every interview, and the ability to block reliable press information by the owner of media company, if it wasn't in conformity with the view of editing board."

    End of update.

    Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party secured a convincing victory in the general elections on Sunday, winning around 45 percent of the votes cast.

    The re-election of the conservative-nationalist group, founded and led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has heightened fears among the journalists and academics that freedom of the press will be further restricted in the party's pursuit of a proposed "new media order". 

    PiS announced in its 232-page election manifesto that it wanted to regulate the status of journalists, promising a "new media order".

    The party said that as journalism depends on public trust, it should be regulated in a similar way to medical and legal sectors, with a body to oversee ethical and professional standards.

    But the proposal is "unclear and vague", said Chris Bobinski, a member of the board of the Polish Society of Journalists.

    "I expect that it would try to discipline journalists to have them report in the right way, presumably defined by the ruling party."

    The deputy culture minister, Pawel Lewandowski, has said: "[The media] is a type of state power.

    "We must have 100 percent certainty that everything that happens in Poland is overseen by the Polish authorities."

    The Polish government has transformed the state-owned media into a propaganda tool and is trying to do the same with investigative reporters and independent media.

    Pauline Ades-Mevel, RSF Europe spokesperson

    At the time of publishing, the Ministry of Digital Affairs had not responded to Al Jazeera's request for comment.

    According to Bobinski, PiS policy has so far "lowered standards" in the media.

    "The party's credibility in [regulating journalism] is very low."

    Falling trust in state media

    Since 2015, PiS has taken control of public companies, the courts and state-run broadcasting in its remoulding of society. 

    Press freedom in Poland has fallen from 18th to 58th place out of 180 countries in an annual index conducted by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

    "The Polish government has transformed the state-owned media into a propaganda tool and is trying to do the same with investigative reporters and independent media," said RSF Europe spokesperson Pauline Ades-Mevel.

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    A turning point for the media came in January 2016 when Polish President Andrzej Duda signed controversial laws enabling the government to appoint the heads of public TV and radio, as well as civil service directors. 

    More than 200 people were fired as a result, and their roles were taken over by people who support the government, said Vadim Makarenko, a journalist at Poland's leading liberal paper Gazeta Wyborcza.

    A Polish presidential spokesperson said the purpose of the laws was to make the media "impartial, objective and reliable", however, the EU said it jeopardised the bloc's values.

    The state-run news service is no longer a reliable or credible source of information, said Adam Szynol, an associate professor and media researcher at the University of Wroclaw.

    Poles, the majority of whom tune in to the public channels and radio, are getting a "false impression" of what's going on in the country, he said.

    Babinski added: "Even the independent, commercial media standards are gradually falling." 

    Polish viewers are not provided with an "adequate explanation of events", he said, claiming that reporting is being used as "ammunition in the fight for public support."

    There is greater trust in private independent media compared with public service broadcasters; only 20 percent of Poles believe the media is free from political influence, according to a study published last year.

    About two-thirds of Poles think journalists simply express their views rather than provide information, according to a 2017 Reuters poll.

    How politics impacts revenue

    Private media groups that have supported the opposition complain that they are losing advertising contracts from state-owned companies, which are increasing their spending to pro-government outlets.

    In the first seven months of 2017, Poland's leading liberal daily, Gazetas Wyborcza, received roughly $520,000 in advertising revenue from state companies and various Polish ministries, according to research by Kantar Media, a British media intelligence company. 

    The amount dropped by more than 80 percent, to about $55,000 the following year. 

    "We are under tremendous financial pressure," said Gazeta Wyborcza journalist Makarenko.

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    Meanwhile, state company advertisement purchases for right-wing weekly magazines soared, including a 700 percent jump at the conservative magazine Do Rzeczy between 2015 and 2016.

    Independent outlets have also come up against increasing legal challenges for their reporting. 

    Since Gazeta Wyborcza published a series of stories that revealed corruption at the Financial Supervision Authority, forcing its chairman Marek Chrzanowski to resign, the ruling party and other state bodies have filed some 50 legal challenges against the newspaper and the lead reporter, Wojciech Czuchnowski.

    "It's an attempt to undermine our credibility and stigmatise us," said Makarenko, as he noted that the number of digital subscribers to Gazeta Wyborcza's site has not been affected. 

    Another major outlet that has come under pressure is TVN, a private television station owned by Discovery, Inc., a US media company. 

    In 2018, the government accused a TVN of promoting fascism, referring to photos taken during an undercover assignment that infiltrated Polish neo-Nazis and broadcast footage of its members holding a birthday party for Adolf Hitler.

    Government ministers and PiS-linked media suggested the events were staged, prompting Georgette Mosbacher, the US ambassador to Poland, to tell the prime minister she was "deeply concerned" about the treatment of TVN.

    A year earlier, Poland's media regulator issued a 1.5 million zloty ($389,000) fine to TVN for its coverage of anti-government protests outside Parliament, on the basis that it "propagated illegal activities and encouraged behaviour threatening security."

    TVN disagreed, saying there were "no factual errors or distortions."

    State media described the July anti-government protests as a "street revolt" that aimed to "bring Islamic immigrants to Poland".

    For 30 years, Poland - the largest former eastern bloc country in the EU - was hailed as an example of successful post-communist democratisation. 

    But the University of Wroclaw's Szynol now considers Poland as part of a wider "illiberal trend" rising across Europe.

    "We now are following in the lead of Hungary [where] democracy is also under threat."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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