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In March 2020, the state-controlled public service broadcasters, Polish Television (TVP) and Polish Radio (PR), received a major government subsidy of nearly 2 bn zlotys. This injection of taxpayers’ money came right on time for the presidential campaign which was eventually, and narrowly, won by Andrzej Duda, the then president and ruling party candidate.
During the campaign the public service broadcasters were constantly and vigorously serving as the main propaganda instrument in favor of Mr. Duda, and as a ‘black PR’ tool against his opponent Rafal Trzaskowski, and, in general, against any political or societal opposition to the ruling camp. In fact, this has been the case since late 2015 when the ruling party took over full control of both TVP and PR.
Particularly horrendous have been offensive news tickers and commentaries run by TVP in relation to:
* the parliamentary opposition,
* the LGBT+ people who were the object of smear propaganda culminating during the presidential campaign,
* the independent NGO’s and private media which were criticising the government and the ruling party,
* the independent judges,
* the Office of Ombudsman which remained the only public institution that avoided being taken over by the ruling camp until the end of 2020,
* the European Union as allegedly controlled by German politicians allegedly hostile towards Poland and therefore insisting that rule of law should be reinstated in our country.
Recently, since October 2020, TVP has been leading the ‘black PR’ campaign against women’s rights demonstrations caused by the abortion ban imposed by the illegal (politically controlled by the ruling party) Constitutional Tribunal. Marta Lempart, a leader of this movement, has been a main target of the campaign, TVP even illegally revealed her positive coronavirus test result in order to accuse her of causing mass infections during street protests.
The subsidy of nearly 2 bn zlotys was granted under the act signed by president Duda. The act provided that TVP and PR would receive not less than the same amount of taxpayers’ money annually - up till 2024 (it was confirmed in government’s 2021 budget projection). These funds are given to the public service broadcasters despite the fact that under Polish law they are entitled to obligatory subscription fee which should be paid by all owners of tv and radio sets.
Despite the jarring political involvement of the public TV and radio broadcastes, Jarosław Kaczyński portrayed the victory of Duda as resulting from "fighting alone against all". - We won despite an extremely tough campaign, one in which all the rules were often broken. The assault on us was coordinated by a powerful media front, also inspired from the outside - insinuated the the leader of PiS in his first election after the second round of the presidential election. In his opinion, "there are groups of people in Poland who believe that in Poland someone is attacking democracy or civil liberties, because this is what a large part of the media is telling them".
In 2020, we have been witnessing the rise in SLAPP lawsuits against independent media, brought by state-controlled agencies, ruling coalition politicians and dignitaries, government ministries, most significantly, the Ministry of Justice and its loyalist judges, and even by the public service broadcasters. All of those legal actions have been triggered against public critique of the rulers by the independent media. The main target of that practice, aimed at attaining a ‘chilling effect’, has been Gazeta Wyborcza, the most influential quality daily newspaper; at present, there are around 57 lawsuits brought against its journalists, editors, and its publisher.
In addition, Gazeta Wyborcza has been constantly discriminated against by the Polish government and state-controlled agencies. While ignoring obvious market and circulation criteria as well as the duty to adequately inform the general public, the government and its agencies do not publish their official announcements and ads in Gazeta Wyborcza, thus depriving the newspaper of revenue, and the public – of valid information. The most outrageous incident of that practice came in April 2020 when Polish government excluded Gazeta Wyborcza from participating in the information campaign about the rules of behaviour during the pandemic in order to prevent infection; although, at the same time, the government placed paid announcements on the subject in all other newspapers, most of them with lower circulation than Wyborcza.
December 2020 brought the most dramatic development regarding Polish media in the last five years. The state-controlled oil refining and distributing company, Orlen, announced the purchase of the Polska Press, with its 20 regional daily newspapers, around 120 local weeklies, and some 500 internet websites, from Verlagsgruppe Passau. This transaction will result in the huge infringement of the press freedom in Poland, namely, the transferring of the bulk of independent regional and local media into the hands of the government and the ruling coalition.
The major danger is not only a rise of the present authorities’ propaganda potential but also, and even more so, an enormous growth of their profiling, microtargeting, and manipulating capabilities of the public, particularly voters. This is due to the fact that Orlen bought also the data of some 17,5 million users, which had been obtained and gathered by the Polska Press-owned media outlets. What is more, in November, Orlen also purchased a controlling stock in the largest national network of newspaper kiosks Ruch, which grants the company market power over the newspaper distribution sector as well.
The deteriorating conditions of Polish independent media landscape was not overlooked by international press freedom and civil rights organizations.
The Deputy Director of the International Press Institute, Scott Griffen, called the transaction a “major and historic setback for press freedom and pluralism in Poland and damaging blow for independent journalism”. And indeed, considering that some of the papers formerly owned by Polska Press are the only source of local news in many Polish towns and districts, both purchases will allow the ruling camp, headed by the Law and Justice (PiS) party, to further undermine the quality of the public debate and skew it in its favor.
In the opinion of Thomas Boserup, who headed the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ Special Election Assessment Mission, TVP "did not meet its legal obligation to inform objectively and impartially during the presidential campaign". Instead, “it functioned as a tool for running the campaign of the incumbent president”.
In 2015, before Law and Justice came to power, Poland was ranked 18th in the global media freedom ranking prepared annually by Reporters Without Borders. In the latest ranking, assessing the state of affairs for 2019, it fell to 62nd.
This staggering backslide reflects the consistent effort of Poland’s national-conservative government to undermine the country’s hard-won liberal-democratic checks and balances. Reshaping the media landscape so as to make it serve its own interest has been a central part of the ruling camp’s political agenda ever since its rise to power in 2015, but in many ways, 2020 has marked a visible shift towards an even more aggressive strategy against critical journalism.
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