Analysis Politics

Blink and you'll miss it: The end of the free press in Poland

Catherine Woolley outlines the new threats facing Poland's free press.

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It doesn’t take a digital addiction to be enthralled in the habit of checking your phone first thing in the morning. Many of us regularly scroll through our social media feed and digest the news until we feel informed. But imagine opening your preferred news app, switching on the TV or tuning into the radio to find that there is nothing there, no content and no news. On Wednesday, this was the reality for millions of Poles who awoke to discover their screens had been blacked out leaving just a small chunk of text which read ‘MEDIA BEZ WYBORU’ (MEDIA WITHOUT CHOICE).

Over the course of 24 hours, independent media outlets up and down the country used their platforms to apologise to their following and make clear their belief that they are undergoing censorship by suffocation. This claim referred to a new ‘Solidarity’ tax which is being rushed through Parliament by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. The tax will take between 2% and 15% of advertisement revenue from media outlets and has been justified as necessary to increase the funding of health services which have been collateral damage in the wake of the pandemic.

While it will apply to all outlets, many in Poland are state subsidised, and these organisations, which are set to be least affected by a new tax, are often described as mouthpieces for the government. The silent strike drew attention to an open letter to ‘the authorities of the Republic of Poland and leaders of political groups’ and was attributed to more than 40 separate organisations such as the major newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, popular radio station RMF FM, and the TV station CANAL+.

Freedom of speech and the press is a hot topic currently as the Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki spoke out against the deactivation of then-president Trump’s social media accounts in January. This was swiftly followed by the proposal of a ‘freedom of speech protection’ bill which would prevent social media companies from moderating content which does not break Polish law.

As the government wages war on the social media giants, they are faced with the problem of the immediate – the Polish electorate is in disarray. Over the course of the last year, Poland has experienced the largest protests since the communist era. These have predominantly been a response to the draconian legislation which rendered 98% of abortions illegal. As part of the plan to ‘re-Polonise’ the media, an anti-censorship social media platform called Albicla has been set up and backed by a pro-government magazine Gazeta Polska. While accruing over 100,000 members in its first month, the magazine has been hacked multiple times and continues to gain a following of trolls – yet given its dedication to zero moderation, there is little that can be done about this.

In Eurocentric discussions, Poland and Hungary are often lumped together, and while this has not always been helpful, the fate of the press in Hungary is a good indication of what is in store for Poland. Reporters Without Borders has recently downgraded Hungary to 89th place in the World Press Freedom Index, WPFI, due to dominance of pro-government organisations in the media. On Tuesday, Klubrádió, the final major radio station which was critical of the government, lost an appeal to extend its broadcasting licence. The dismantling of the free press in Hungary began with major buyouts of media organisations which is something Poland has already seen at home. PKN Orlen, a Polish oil conglomerate, is a Fortune 500 company which as of late last year owns a powerful media empire.

This may seem a little complicated but the devil is in the details. PKN Orlen bought out Polska Press and now controls 20 of the 24 regional newspapers, almost 120 magazines and 500 websites with a following of more than 17 million people. The example set by Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has given the Polish press legitimate cause for concern. Poland, which is currently ranked 62nd on the WPFI, is at an all-time low and appears set to continue this descent.

While the ‘Solidarity’ tax is yet to become law, this is clearly not the only battle the free press must fight to ensure survival. The Polish government has responded to the protest by demonising the independent media for being unwilling to contribute to the finances of the state. They have also spoken about how taxes similar to this exist in other European countries already.

Going forward, we will find out just how determined the government is to ‘re-Polonise’ the media and exactly what they are willing to sacrifice in order to achieve this goal.

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