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Over three decades after its first free democratic election, Poland’s meticulously built democracy and civil society are facing extreme challenges. Since 2015, Poland has registered an exceptional degree of decline in democratic quality, looking at the electoral process, media freedom, and judicial review. During that period, the rule of law, human rights, minority rights and the free press have been violated by the ruling right-wing government.

Given these crucial challenges for Polish society that are also found in other European countries, the role of culture and free media in sheltering the values of democracy have become more evident. Especially in these times of ever-increasing polarization between pro- and anti-democratic forces both leveraging cultural trends and the media to further their own political agenda. What is the role of culture and the media in protecting democracies both in Poland and Europe and how can they contribute to the idea of ‘a European demos’? And conversely, how are they weaponized by the nativist, homophobic and misogynist Polish government?

To answer these questions, the Civic Council on European Democracy gathered a number of thinkers from Poland and other European countries for an online debate on Wednesday, June 23rd. 

The Civic Council is an initiative of the Forum on European Culture in Amsterdam. This project is carried out in close cooperation with Gazeta Wyborcza and European Alternatives. The three sessions of the Civic Council aimed to combine the perspectives of European thinkers, civil society actors and artists to create new ideas on how to improve our European democracies and bring Europeans closer together. 

The first session, in September 2020 in Amsterdam, covered the broad topic of how to make European democracies function better. The second, which took place in Sicily in March 2021, concerned the question of democratic accountability in the times of Covid-related restrictions on fundamental freedoms. This week’s closing session focused on Poland’s struggle against the ongoing authoritarian turn. 

First part of the discussion was focused on the media. Among the plethora of challenges faced by the independent press in Poland, particular emphasis was placed on financial and legal repression of those outlets that refuse to toe the party line, as well as the government’s takeover of local media and its political ramifications. 

The debate on media was followed  by the examination of the state of the cultural sector in Poland and what role, if any, could the arts play in alleviating the escalating political conflict.  

Participants included Olga Brzezińska, the president and co-founder of the City of Literature Foundation, Réka Kinga Papp, the editor-in-Chief of Eurozine, Sylwia Gregorczyk-Abram, one of the founders of the Justice Defense Committee and the Free Courts Foundation, Alicja Gescinska,  a writer, TV-presenter and head of the Philosophy PhD programme at the University of Buckingham, Kalypso Nicolaïdis, professor at the School of Transnational Governance, European University Institute, and professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford, Grzegorz Jarzyna, the artistic director of Teatr Rozmaitości in Warsaw, Bassem Akiki, the musical director of the Wrocław Opera, Yoeri Albrecht, the general and artistic director of De Balie and the curator of the Forum on European Culture, Simon Strauss, a journalist for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Zuzanna Lewandowska, Vice President of the Wysokie Obcasy Foundation, and Miłosz Wiatrowski, senior editor of Wyborcza in English.

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Every day, 400 journalists at Gazeta Wyborcza write verified, fact-checked stories about Polish politics and society, keeping a critical eye on the ruling camp’s persistent assault on democratic values and the rule of law; the growing cultural tension between religious fundamentalism and human rights; and the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic. Our journalists are on the front lines in 30 Polish cities, reporting from the streets, hospitals, and courtrooms about issues that move public opinion.

We decided to make our service available to everyone free of charge in order to provide access to high quality journalism for expats and English speakers interested in Polish affairs. 

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