Poland’s Law and Justice party has infamously peeled back layers of democracy year by year since their surprise majority win in 2015. Using their control of both houses of the legislative branch, the party have made unprecedented moves against the independence of the judiciary and the plurality of the media establishments. By centering their platform around social issues the previous, less authoritarian government neglected, PiS garnered large amounts of support. Despite their obvious anti-democratic ethos since the election, polling numbers for the party have remained steady and in some cases, higher than polling numbers for political resistance groups like the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD). Law and Justice’s control of the media through which they spread propaganda and disinformation could be a reason why.
By removing the heads of media establishments to replace with their own, Law and Justice have stopped media plurality and transformed the nation’s news stations into a propaganda machine. Throughout May of 2019, Towarzystwo Dziennikarskie (Society of Journalists) monitored the TVP, Poland’s main public television broadcaster, in an effort to record PiS bias during the European parliamentary elections. 101 of 153 stories pertained to the election and 69 of those stories pertained to PiS. 68 of these were positive, while the 33 stories pertaining to their opponents were all negative. Disproportionate amounts of positive news regarding PiS constantly occur on these news outlets, but biased coverage is not the only way PiS media affects the nation’s citizens. Direct disinformation is also one of the tools in the party’s arsenal, not dissimilar to media abuse in Russia. Controversies involving party members, especially leader Jarosław Kaczyński, are more often than not completely smothered and hidden from the general public. On May 24, TVP aired an interview with a “Belgian journalist,” who spoke French and provided damning “evidence” regarding Civic Platform official Donald Tusk. As it turns out, this journalist happened to be an intern for TVP and was a Polish resident in Warsaw. TVP also manipulates headlines and captions, using overly expressive language to influence the audience one of two ways before the story is even presented: positively towards PiS and negatively towards the opposition. Words like “strong” and “patriotic” are always referencing PiS while words like “scandalous” and “shocking” are exclusively used against other parties.
Unlike disinformation campaigns in South American countries like Brazil and Colombia, the central node through which PiS push their disinformation are the national media institutions. While they do have a presence on social media, Poland’s government lies to its people through the central media institutions that they are supposed to trust. Many of the solutions to the spread of disinformation do not work in Poland because of the control over all three branches PiS maintain. Groups of journalists and NGOs, like the Towarzystwo Dziennikarskie, do what they can to provide research exposing the truth of broadcast stations controlled by PiS, but polls and the results of the 2019 elections suggest a strong base of support remains for PiS. Even the supposed media watchdog, National Council of Radio Broadcasting and Television, does little to resist PiS autocratic moves against free, unbiased media. In a report from the council concerning the research done on TVP’s biased stories, captions, verbiage, and coverage, and while the contents in the 150 pages do point to bias and propaganda, the actual layout makes it difficult to understand just how negative the report is. The council itself has five members, two of whom were appointed by Law and Justice themselves, including the council’s head. Similar to Duda’s veto against two of the three initial proposals to consume the country’s Supreme Court, the actual contents of the report were too clear to hide without sparking serious controversy, but the party’s perverse and sneaky operations in the report’s presentations remain consistent with PiS’ modus operandi.
The death of pluralism in a country’s media is an early sign of surefire tyranny. Like musk in a dumpster, Law and Justice continue to display worrying amounts of authoritarian decisions in the name of Poland. Along with intense nationalism, xenophobia, and destruction of judiciary independence, Poland’s free media have lost their battle with the duplicitous party. Journalist groups and the European Union fight Law and Justice, but unwavering support and a second term spell trouble for democracy in the former shining light of Eastern European democracy.