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Dear Readers,

It has never happened before, and let’s hope it will never have to happen again. Yesterday, in an unprecedented show of solidarity, Poland’s independent media went on strike. The event will surely go down in history as an important chapter in the fight for free speech and an open, democratic society. The tragedy of all this, however, is that we had to engage in this kind of protest for the first time since 1989, since the end of censorship. Yet again, we came to a point where our country’s hard-won democracy must be defended.

The ruling camp, led by PiS, is destroying our politics and social life. It undermines the respect for the rule of law and shows disdain for human rights. It corrupts our economy, using public funds for its personal purposes. It has turned public media into a crude propaganda machine and bought itself the blind support of several private outlets. It is incapable of taking care of the health of Polish citizens. It has turned the education system into a caricatural mold of nationalist ideology and unreflective catholic dogma. It has reduced the police to its private security force and is using it to pacify political dissent.

This government has made it its mission to eradicate any sign of independence. It sees a free and open society as its enemy and wants to transform it into an obedient, uncritical mass. No wonder, then, that the only thing it is good at is propaganda- crude, rude, and obtrusive. Inspired by the Orwellian doublespeak, the ruling camp uses its propaganda machine to perpetuate blatant lies and launch ever new hate campaigns against anyone it considers to be an enemy.

But even that is not enough. They want more. What’s holding them back, however, is independent media. Free and critical media are the cornerstone of democracy, they are a guarantor of a socially conscious public, and an essential component of a healthy public debate. The task of independent media is to provide citizens with reliable information, and to ensure that the government’s power is kept in check, because, as we know, „power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

PiS is allergic to public criticism, it’s afraid of it, and wants to have it muzzled. It wants to do so by any means necessary- be it through intimidating journalists, or introducing a new media tax.

The newly announced ad revenue tax would be a powerful blow to free media. Being the main source of income for most independent outlets, advertising revenue is already severely limited because of the pandemic-induced economic downturn. Imposing additional financial costs on them would undoubtedly lead to layoffs, making it considerably more difficult to continue with the already underfunded efforts of investigative journalists.

By targeting their economic basis, the ruling camp is trying to prevent independent media from fact-checking politicians and exposing their lies. It is not just another levy, but rather a tool with which the government wants to silence critical outlets.

In its typically deceptive manner, PiS calls this tax a "contribution," even though it offers nothing but oppression. It says that the ad tax is supposed to support the health care system, even though the money it would raise amounts to less than 1% of the annual expenditures of the National Health Service. It invokes "solidarity" in the fight against the pandemic, even though it ignores independent media, does not care to answer their inquiries, cynically ignores its own abuses and scandals, and meddles with statistics. Last year, commissioning private outlets to publish a public announcement about COVID-19 restrictions, the government simply ignored Gazeta Wyborcza and several other media; we paid for it out our own pocket.

The government's claim that the tax is primarily intended to target tech giants, the so-called GAFA- who avoid paying their fair share in European countries where they conduct their business- is a blatant lie. The same government - driven by its blind obedience to the Trump administration- has been convinced by the former Vice President Pence to abandon the idea of introducing a digital tax on Silicon Valley tycoons. Not to mention that for such a tax to even be collectible in the first place, an agreement between member states is necessary. Powerful digital platforms operate globally, keep their algorithms out of the public’s view, and are extremely protective of their profits. Without any help from the European Union, the Polish Prime Minister has simply too little power to make them comply. Besides, the government has exposed its own lies, because it explicitly admitted that it wants to collect PLN 50 million annually from US tech giants, while at the same time raising PLN 800 million from Polish media outlets (16 times more!).

Put simply: the tax is supposed to be a substitute for censorship. A similar scenario has played out in Victor Orbán’s Hungary, where nearly all independent media have been compromised.

As an act of protest against this war on independent media, in defense of freedom of speech and freedom as such, yesterday, we- the Polish journalists, editors, and publishers stood shoulder to shoulder. Even if we usually compete for readers' attention, we have managed to show real solidarity. All of us, from large television and radio stations, internet portals, national newspapers- to regional and local media for whom such protests are the most difficult and risky- we all understand that vulnerable, weak, and financially stifled media can never fulfill its democratic mission. Media should serve the people, not the government.

Media outlets that decided to go on strike yesterday are not fighting for more money. They are fighting for their very existence- which is directly tied to the existence of a free, well-informed public. Without it, there can be no democracy, there can be no choice. Without free media, there can be no free and fair elections. Without independent institutions to keep the government in check, public authorities will have a free hand to do whatever they want with us. And they will not think twice before depriving us, citizens, of the power to shape the fate of our country.

We will not tire. Stay with us. We are here for You.

***

Every day, 400 journalists at Gazeta Wyborcza write verified, fact-checked stories about the coronavirus pandemic for you.

They are on the front lines in 25 Polish cities. They work on the ground, reporting from hospitals and airports.

We have decided to open online access to our news stories and special guides focused on the issue of public health, for free.

The access to information should be equal for all.

Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation
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