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On Wednesday, members of the European Parliament met to discuss “government attempts to silence free media in Poland, Hungary, and Slovenia”. The debate has been a direct response to the draft legislation targeting independent media outlets recently proposed by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party.

„The assault on free media is only one of the many fronts opened by the ruling camp in its war on Polish democracy and civil society. The attack on media freedom in Poland clears the way for an all-out assault on the very values on which the European Union was founded” – Adam Michnik, Gazeta Wyborcza’s editor in chief, wrote in an open letter addressed to members of the European Parliament.

"These are black days for media freedom in Poland and Europe"

-The European Commission was strongly impressed by the protest of over 40 Polish media outlets which on February 10 went off air for one day to express their opposition to the new tax on media advertising revenue, and by the failure of Hungarian authorities to renew the license of the oppositional Klubrádió station. Both examples are clear signs that the pandemic is being used by some governments as an excuse to restrict certain freedoms- says our source in Brussels.

Addressing members of the EU Parliament, Vera Jourová, the Commission Vice President, mentioned the blank screens and empty front pages of Polish independent media outlets which protested against the proposed advertising tax. – We expect that these voices of concern are properly heard – she said.  For now, however, the Commission still remains hesitant to outline specific actions regarding the ad tax because, as our source in Brussels tells us, "the proposed legislation is only a draft, so it is hard to comment on it in more detail".

10.03.2021, Bruksela, Parlament Europejski, Vera Jourova podczas debaty na temat sytuacji mediów w Polsce.10.03.2021, Bruksela, Parlament Europejski, Vera Jourova podczas debaty na temat sytuacji mediów w Polsce. Johanna Geron / AP

Ms. Jourová announced that the Commission "will not hesitate in cases of non-compliance with EU law". She acknowledged that while the Commission has only limited options, it is nonetheless looking for solutions "that will enhance the role of media in democratic societies. - In a democracy, you need to be able to ask questions without fear- she said.

Speaking on behalf of the European People's Party, Jeroen Lenaers, was one of the several MEPs who referred to Adam Michnik's letter.

– Democracy dies in darkness. And dark it is in Poland today. But we stand with Polish journalists and free media everywhere- he declared. He also pointed out the Law and Justice government has turned public media „into propaganda channels spewing out hate speech and xenophobia with its most dramatic result being the murder of Paweł Adamowicz, the mayor of Gdańsk”.  

Birgit Sippel, a member of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, recalled Poland’s state-owned oil giant’s takeover of regional media. – These are black days for free media in Europe – she said.

But one of the main themes of yesterday’s debate has also been the criticism of EU institutions, which, as some MEPs argued, had failed to stop the stifling of media pluralism in Hungary, successively executed throughout the last decade.

– Fine words and reports are not enough. It’s time to act! –Birgit Sippel urged the European Parliament. Michal Šimecka (representing the Renew Europe Group) has also joined the critical voices pointing towards the Commission’s inadequate actions concerning the attacks on media freedom taking place in Poland and Hungary.

In Slovenia, you see the Prime Minister busy with personal attacks on journalists. In Slovakia, my country, this was also the case before the murder of Jan Kuciak, so I remember it very well– Mr. Šimecka warned.

- As long as the Commission and the EU Council are hesitant to take decisive action in support of media freedom, autocrats and oligarchs will feel encouraged to attack them– explained Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield who piloted the discussion on Hungary.

Complaints from Hungary stopped cold

Some MEPs have long criticized the Commission for - as the Hungarian opposition puts it - shying away from dealing with complaints from Hungary concerning violations of rules on state aid, or the (in)direct subsidies (usually strictly regulated on the EU level) aimed at distorting the domestic media market. While public media are exempt from the usual EU subsidy restrictions, the authors of the 2016 complaint point out that instead of fulfilling their public service mission in Hungary, these generously funded media outlets are in fact government or state-owned, which, under EU law, makes the subsidies illegal.

Another complaint from Hungary in 2019 alleges manipulation of government advertising flows. This, in turn, hints at unauthorized state aid – rewarding media that support the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, while punishing the critical ones. The European Commission keeps saying that it is "analyzing" these complaints. According to our sources, acknowledging them would require a risky attempt at a rather unconventional interpretation of EU regulations on free competition. Meanwhile, the International Press Institute (IPI) estimates that 80% of the Hungarian media outlets providing information on politics and public life is already financed from sources controlled by the ruling Fidesz party.

-The failure of the EU to act has emboldened the Hungarian government and now Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) government is cherry-picking elements of the Hungarian model to fit the Polish system- warns the International Press Institute and several dozen other international organizations concerned with media freedom in their joint statement released shortly before the debate. All of them also demand that the Commission “investigate the use of Poland’s state-controlled oil company, PKN Orlen, to purchase private media and to monitor its impact on media pluralism and editorial independence”.

Moreover, they call for the establishment of common rules protecting independent media from a chilling effect produced by numerous lawsuits and compensation claims financed by state authorities.

Yesterday, Ms. Jourová announced that, by the end of this year, the European Commission will propose draft recommendations for EU countries to increase the safety of journalists and reduce the intimidating effects of lawsuits. She emphasized that the Commission has very limited powers in the field of media protection. Nonetheless, she called on the European Parliament to help expand Brussels' toolbox, ranging from financial support to new regulations on "the media as a pillar of democracy”.

Former PiS PM stands up for the Polish government

During yesterday’s debate, former PiS Prime Minister Beata Szydło dismissed all allegations against Poland as "based on false information" spread by the opposition. - Do not organize debates based on disinformation and fake news- she said.

Raffaele Fitto, the Italian vice-chairman of the conservative faction (dominated by PiS), claimed the debate was "surreal" and "about nothing". - After all, media can criticize the authorities in Warsaw and Budapest all they want, without any censorship or restrictions- Mr. Fitto argued.


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