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Poland is Following Hungary’s Playbook in Stifling Independent Media

Tim Cross 27 May, 2021 

Two weeks ago, VideoWeek detailed how Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has used a variety of means, from advertising to regulation to buyouts, to gain control over large swathes of Hungarian media.

His aim has been to dictate the narrative put out by the press, reaching a point where pretty much every large media business toes the government’s line, and critical news reports are silenced.

This process, known as media capture, is by no means unique to Hungary.

And in fact in Poland, Orbán’s techniques have been a direct inspiration for the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), led by far-right politician Jarosław Kaczyński.

Poland has not fallen as far as Hungary. There are still plenty of successful independent media companies operating in the country. But even just over the last year, we’ve seen local papers brought under effective government control, attacks on journalists increasing, and new laws proposed to ‘repolanise’ Polish media. With Kaczyński following Orbán’s playbook, many fear persecution of independent media is only going to increase.

Takeover of TVP

The process of media capture in Poland began in October 2015, when PiS returned to power after eight years out of office.

Kaczyński, who is neither the Prime Minister nor the President, but leads the PiS and is regarded as Poland’s most influential politician, is an outright critic of liberal democracy. And in 2011, he spoke of Hungary as a direct inspiration, saying that “a day will come when we have a Budapest in Warsaw”.

Controlling the media is central to Kaczyński’s vision of illiberal democracy, and his party was swift to begin cracking down after getting elected.

Before the end of the year the PiS had drafted a new media law, which gave the government much more control over state TV broadcaster TVP and radio station Poland Radio, both of which had a big market share in Poland.

The law redesignated state broadcasters as “national cultural institutions”, and effectively gave the government the ability to dismiss and appoint executives as it saw fit. The PiS claimed the measures were necessary as corruption within the broadcasters had flourished under the previous government.

The draft bill sparked immediate backlash both at home and abroad. Directors of four of TVP’s channels – Piotr Radziszewski (TVP1), Jerzy Kapuscinski (TVP2), Katarzyna Janowska (TVP Kultura) and Tomasz Sygut (Television Information Agency) – resigned in protest. The European Commission asked the Polish government to explain the changes, stating that “freedom and pluralism of the media are crucial for society and rule of law”. And the Association of European Journalists wrote an open letter urging the government to shelve the law until “the issues have been fully and publicly aired in an inclusive public debate”.

But the PiS rushed the bill through nonetheless, with Hungary’s Orbán assuring Poland that he would veto any sanctions the EU might try to impose on Poland. Jacek Kurski, an ultra-right wing politician and friend of the PiS, was brought in to run TVP, and over 200 journalists were fired or resigned within three months as the PiS remade TVP in its image.

Output from TVP and Poland Radio quickly began to reflect the views of the government ultra-conservative government. Harlan Mandel, CEO of MDIF, a fund which invests in independent media, said TVP’s coverage is even more biased than Polish state media was during its communist years. “There’s hate mongering, news anchors engage in personal attacks – it’s very similar to some of the stations you would find in Russia,” he said.

One example of the changes came just that February, when TVP broadcast Oscar-winning Polish film Ida.TVP aired a 12 minute introduction to the film, which claimed it was factually inaccurate, and only won an Oscar because of its pro-Jewish sentiment.

Death by 1000 cuts

Kaczyński and the PiS’s crackdown on independent media didn’t stop with the takeover of TVP. But for the next four years, the strategy shifted to using state powers over advertising, regulation, and litigation to pressure independent news outlets.

This became particularly important to the government as TVP’s influence waned, with audiences shifting over to Discovery-owned broadcaster TVN. The PiS began looking for ways to stifle these more critical news sources.

To start, the government began using its influence over state-owned businesses, which make up a large part of Poland’s economy, to starve critical news outlets of funding. Since 2015, state-owned businesses have massively cut back their ad spend with critical news sources, while also pausing subscriptions to these services.

A report from the International Press Institute found that some liberal titles including Polityka and Newsweek Polska have been completely boycotted by the government, with revenues from state advertising having fallen by between 98-100 percent since 2015. And data from research firm Kantar has found that ad spend from state-owned companies in anti-LGBT publications is in some cases 30 times higher than it was before 2015.

“Over consecutive years, this instrumentalisation of public advertising has distorted market dynamics in favour of outlets which align with the government’s views and values,” says the IPI report. “As a result, a substantial amount of pro-PiS portals and websites have been set up in the last few years to reap the financial rewards. This “indirect sponsorship” has led to the creation of a pro-government media bubble, many of whose outlets amplify nationalist rhetoric but display little adherence to journalistic standards.”

The government also started trying to place new legal controls over media. Less than a year after passing the first law which brought TVP under government control, the PiS ignited fresh protests with a second media bill.

This bill effectively blocked access to the political system for all except those approved by the government. The law prohibited all filming of parliamentary procedures, with five exceptions made for state-appointed broadcasters. It also reduced the number of press accreditations handed out, and blocked journalists from entering parliament.

Thousands gathered outside Warsaw’s parliament building to protest the bill, while opposition MPs blocked access to the parliamentary podium as a mark of defiance, refusing to vote on the upcoming budget.

These protests forced the government to eventually back down, but the government remained undeterred. Instead of writing new laws, the PiS shifted to filing huge numbers of court cases against media critical media companies, or issuing fines under existing laws.

For example in 2017, Poland’s tax authority claimed Discovery’s TVN owed 110 million zloty due to irregularities in a transaction completed in 2012, resulting in a court case which has lasted years.

Shortly after, Poland’s media watchdog levied a £310,000 fine against TVN for its coverage of anti-government protests, claiming TVN was “promoting illegal activities and encouraging behaviour that threatens security”.

The government backed down on the latter following the intervention of the US ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher, but still the fines continued.

Another high profile case came in 2018, when the media regulator brought a criminal case against a TVN journalist who broadcast undercover footage of a neo-Nazi group celebrating Hitler’s birthday. The journalist, Piotr Wacowski, was accused of propagating fascism by having gone undercover to film the footage. Again, this case was dropped, but TVN put out a statement saying it was a clear example of the government trying to intimidate journalists.

Acceleration in COVID

By 2019, there was a clear transformation in Polish media. Independent media businesses were still allowed to exist, but beset by frequent litigation and starved of public sector funding. Meanwhile state media had been transformed into a government mouthpiece, openly criticising opponents of the government.

The start of 2019 saw a horrifying reflection of these changes. Pawel Adamowicz, the liberal mayor of Gdansk and a frequent target of media attacks, was stabbed to death on stage during a charity event. The murderer, a recently released prisoner, blamed the opposition party Civic Platform. Shortly after Adamowicz’s death, TVP blamed liberal media for “heating up emotions”.

While it might have been hoped that Adamowicz’ murder would change the tone of TVP’s news coverage, attacks on liberal figures continued. And in fact the coming years saw media capture in Poland rise to new levels.

With another national election set for the end of the 2019, the PiS pledged to “repolanise” Polish media, promising to introduce new media regulations and reduce foreign influence in Polish media companies.

And since the PiS retained power, we’ve seen a number of major changes.

At the end of 2020, we saw the first major example of a Hungarian-style takeover of independent media. In Poland’s case, the government used state-owned oil business PKN Orlen to buy out Polska Press, a major publisher of independent media. Polska Press owns 20 of the country’s largest regional daily newspapers, as well as around 120 regional and local papers and 500 websites.

The takeover was met with pushback, notably by Polish human rights ombudsman Adam Bodnar. Bodnar filed a case with the Court of Competition and Consumer Protection after the deal was approved by Poland’s antitrust regulator UOKiK, and the court agreed to suspend the PKN’s acquisition.

But the government forced Bodnar out of his role, and the acquisition has gone through unimpeded. Concerns about the PKN’s oversight over Polska Press have quickly been validated, as four editors-in-chief have been fired from Polska Press, replaced with journalists from TVP.

“The firing of the editors-in-chief of Polska Press shows that the government is ready to pursue the repolonisation at any cost, even at the expense of ignoring judicial decisions,” said Pavol Szalai, the Head of Reporters Without Borders’ EU and Balkans Desk. ““We call on the company PKN Orlen to cancel its decisions interfering with the editorial offices and refrain from any others, as requested by the competition court. We also ask the competition watchdog to ensure this is done.”

While antitrust authority UOKiK quickly greenlit PKN’s acquisition, it stifled an attempted acquisition by Agora, a Polish media group which is generally critical of the government.

In 2019 Agora tried to take full control of radio broadcaster Eurozet, buying out the 60 percent stage held by SFS Ventures (an investment fund part-owned by MDIF). At the start of this year the deal was blocked by UOKiK, which said such a move risked competition in Poland’s radio broadcasting sector.

“This was the first time they’ve blocked a transaction of any kind in ten years, and they had to create a whole new theory of competition in order for the decision to make any sense,” said MDIF’s Harlan Mandel. “It was widely criticised in the legal community and the media community, and generally seen as completely political.”

And 2021 has also seen new legislation introduced aimed at curbing media independence.

A new advertising tax, proposed at the start of the year, would have imposed high tax rates on all ad revenues for media companies operating in Poland. The government said the tax was designed to support Poland’s national health service in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it was generally seen as an attempt by the government to put more financial pressure on independent media.

The proposal drew criticism from abroad, and sparked protests from Polish media companies. On February 10th, a number of commercial broadcasters and internet media businesses replaced their usual content with a black screen featuring the words “Media bez wyboru” (which translates to “Media without choice”).

The government withdrew its tax proposal, pledging to rework the tax and release it later this year.

Following the path established by Hungary

Poland’s media plurality has still not declined as far as Hungary’s. The fact that broadcasters were able to protest the advertising tax, and successfully forced the government to back down, shows that the PiS doesn’t have complete control of the media.

But the signs are certainly grim. As media becomes more polarised and attacks on left-leaning media become more explicit, journalists in Poland are increasingly under threat of physical attacks. One of the most disturbing cases came at the end of last year, when 74-year-old photographer Tomasz Gutry was shot in the face with a rubber bullet by a police officer, while covering clashes between protestors in Poland’s capital. Gutry was just one of a number of journalists recorded being assaulted by police.

“On a national level, Poland’s media landscape is still highly pluralistic and enjoys high levels of freedom of expression,” says the International Press Institute’s advocacy officer Jamie Wiseman. “However, five years of policies aimed at destabilising and weakening independent media has taken a debilitating toll on media freedom and pluralism.”

“Five years of these continued policies mean Poland is now taking worrying steps down the path established by Hungary, whose government has in the last decade created and then exported a system of media capture unprecedented in the European Union,” added Wiseman.

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About the Author:

Tim Cross is Assistant Editor at VideoWeek.
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