The opinion piece on the situation of media freedom in Poland originally appeared in the Swedish daily „Dagens Nyheter” and was authored by its editor in chief – Peter Wolodarski.
It feels like yesterday, but five years have already passed since the nationalist-conservatives came into power in Poland. Running for office, they never made a secret of their intentions. As soon as they took control of the government, they started their ruthless attacks against independent institutions and the free media. Public media outlets and associated journalists became their first target.
When a TV host asked the new Minister of Culture, Piotr Gliński, a tough question, he replied with contempt, saying: “What you and your network are doing is not journalism but propaganda. But this will soon come to an end".
Public broadcaster on a tight leash
Back then, some have simply ignored these warning signs as empty rhetoric. After all, the government of an EU member state wouldn’t go after journalists and treat them as enemies. It would be a desecration of Poland’s peaceful revolution which has cleared the path for democracy in Central and Eastern Europe 30 years ago. The Polish government wouldn’t attack the foundations of an open society... or would it?
The past five years, however, have shown us that Poland’s ruling national-conservative party devoted itself to doing just that. They started by trampling over the public media, getting rid of several hundred journalists, and turning the public broadcast into a state propaganda tool. Literally.
The public broadcaster TVP still has its old name but is otherwise barely recognizable. Its programs are often aggressively partisan and agitative in their tone, resembling a crude version of the American TV channel Fox News. Professional journalism has been marginalized. Non-heteronormative individuals, immigrants, feminists, environmental activists, short: the enemies of the regime- are constantly targeted by TVP.
Poland’s ruling nationalist-conservative party seems to have come to the same conclusion as Vladimir Putin: political control over television broadcast is necessary because that’s how you reach most citizens.
Straight out of the Russian playbook
As expected, however, the ruling camp didn’t just stop there. Courts, cultural organizations, and independent institutions – none of the key areas of social and political life have been safe from the government's ruthless greed for power. Even private media outlets have become its victim.
Independent newspapers that had the audacity to criticize the government have been subjected to a downpour of rhetorical assaults akin to Donald Trump’s attacks against critical media in the US. But the attacks have not been limited to aggressive rhetoric: the ruling party also ensured that government institutions and state-owned companies stop running their ads in independent newspapers such as Gazeta Wyborcza, which played a key role in Poland’s democratic transition.
Today, there are clear signs of the government preparing for its next media offensive. After all the propaganda, rhetorical attacks, and a deluge of lawsuits against critical newspapers, the government is now ready to take over independent media outlets. The state-owned oil company Orlen is now about to enter the media market.
Recently, Orlen broke the news about its takeover of Polska Press media group, the owner of 20 dailies, 150 local weeklies, and about 500 online news portals: a major part of Poland’s regional and local media market.
But it doesn’t stop there: earlier this year, Orlen, whose CEO is a known confidant of Jarosław Kaczyński – the leader of the ruling party, has bought a company which distributes newspapers and magazines throughout Poland. Moreover, there are also speculations about the government’s possible takeover of the reputable daily newspaper “Rzeczpospolita”.
The consolidation of the state, oil industry, and the media is a well-known move from the Russian playbook, and it should ring alarm bells for supporters of democracy worldwide.
The Polish nightmare continues
2020 will surely go down in history as the year of the coronavirus pandemic. But the resulting crisis and pandemic restrictions have also given politicians an excuse to compromise independent media. We have seen it during this year’s American presidential election when journalists were verbally assaulted, beaten, and even arrested, all with President Trump's approval.
The developments in Poland follow a similar pattern: the ongoing crisis has only reinforced authoritarian tendencies. The national-conservative ruling camp is persistently implementing its long sought-after plan, even despite the voices of protest coming from the EU.
The example of the United States and Poland shows that neither established nor young democracies are immune to the virus of authoritarianism. Democracy does not stand a chance against attacks targeting its very core. The strength of any open society is at the same time its inherent weakness: if the protective mechanisms are strong enough, freedom can be abused to stifle freedom.
Who could’ve predicted in 2015 what we’ll witness in the US and Poland throughout the next 5 years? In 2020, we’re reminded yet again that democracy shouldn’t be taken for granted.
While the United States may soon be waking up from its nightmare, Poland is still fast asleep.
A free and democratic Poland needs to feel that it has many friends to support it. Sweden has historically been such a friend.
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