Poland’s media problem began with President Andrzej Duda’s election in 2015. He started with blatant attempts to control the commanding heights of the media, especially public television. Duda accomplished this by directly controlling messages published on TV and punishing journalists under defamation laws. While the strategy has partially succeeded, Poland has also seen massive protests over the freedom of the press and freedom of speech. These demonstrations suggest that society is unwilling to tolerate or turn a blind eye towards Duda’s media manipulation.
Poland’s case demonstrates that an informed civil society can impede attempts to control the media. Civilians with other sources of knowledge and the opportunity to oppose executive aggrandizers can provide a powerful counter to media command strategies. Specifically, social media, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and an active civil society have hampered the regime’s attempt to control the media by bringing repression to light on an international stage.
When Duda was elected in 2015, he and his Law and Justice party (PiS) began a series of so-called reforms that, among other things, curbed the freedom of state-sponsored television and radio. Shortly after Duda and his PiS party entered office, legislation passed that allowed replacement of senior officials in the public broadcasting network. Additionally, Duda and the PiS politicized the court in a way that restricts the freedom of the press, as some now enforce Article 212 of the criminal code which allows for up to a year in prison for defamation by journalists. This has led to a culture of self-censorship. By 2018, Duda and the PiS established enough control over TVP for international agencies to notice, with the Council of Europe and NGO Reporters Without Borders calling the channel “propaganda” for the ruling party. Duda’s command over the media could explain why over three times as many Poles found public TV, specifically TVP, untrustworthy in 2019 than in 2012. Duda and the PiS’s actions fall under symptoms of democratic erosion, with his attempts to curtail media freedom directed specifically against opposition views.  A free press acts as a guardrail against erosion, and Duda’s moves have clearly broken it.
Yet, both protesters and civil society have garnered media and organizational support against the government through their demonstrations. Their protests followed nearly all attempts at media erosion by Duda, with major demonstrations in 2016 and 2018 calling for “free media,” among many others. External sources of information and social media, as well as NGOs, have allowed these opponents to protest government-controlled media.
First, other sources of knowledge allow Polish civilians to evade government propaganda and serve as a counter to the government. Polish citizens have free access to social media and have utilized it to speak out against the government. This free access to auxiliary sources undermines the regime’s propaganda. The Poles’ discontent with their nation’s propaganda, furthered by social media, significantly counters governmental attempts to control the media. Similar to the undermining effect of Nazi propaganda when German listeners had anti-Nazi party sentiments, as described in “Radio and the Rise of Nazis in Prewar Germany,” Poland’s free access to social media and other European sources allows for a significant anti-propaganda sentiment . This is demonstrated by the notable levels of distrust in TVP. Further, other media sources, including the BBC, are able to access and cover protests, thus undermining governmental attempts at media control by bringing the repression forward.
Additionally, the presence of NGOs in Poland enables citizens to learn about and fight back against the repression they face. Organizations including the Committee for the Defence of Democracy have organized protests and spoken to international media. Duda and the PiS’s strategy has been to control the “commanding heights” of the media; Scott Gelbach describes this as Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s strategy of exhibiting limited control of the media to only the most popular or easily controllable mediums or television channels.  However, this limited control means that other mediums, as well as NGOs, are unregulated in Poland. This minimal control and presence of other actors facilitates the finding of information and the participation in action against the government. Further, NGOs bring international attention to protests, as seen by media coverage and the European Commission’s repeated interest in the demonstrations.
Third, citizens’ ability to oppose executive aggrandizers like Duda and his PiS party has served as a powerful check on media repression. In 2016, mass protests followed Poland’s changes to its judiciary and media laws, resulting in an unprecedented EU investigation. Moreover, 2019 election results show an increased number of Polish citizens voting against the PiS. This greater civic engagement, seen through increased protests and increased voting, led to weakening of the PiS’ grip on power, as they lost seats in the legislature. Both the freedom of assembly and voting rights allowed Poles to call attention to media repression and weaken the power of PiS.
While the fact that Duda has not been voted out could be seen as a sign that the regime is unopposed, citizens’ recognition that their news is neither free nor fair, demonstrated by the significant percentage of Poles who distrust TVP, is an important step. Understanding that the message is propaganda is key, as citizens with predispositions aligned against the message will likely be unaffected by it.  This, along with other sources of media, the freedom to protest and speak out, and voting allows citizens to counter Poland’s media repression. Although citizen pressure has not resolved the issue, it is a guardrail against Duda’s erosion, especially by its ability to bring international attention to the issue.
Citizens’ ability to both receive sources of knowledge besides public television and actively oppose the government serves as a check on Duda’s attempts to bring the media under control, especially by revealing the repression on an international stage. Bringing this repression to the attention of international actors, such as the EU, can be key to deterring PiS from repressing the media by making said backsliding costly.  While the issue of media suppression persists today, Polish citizens have made strides to fight back against Duda and have been key to bringing international attention to the issue. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018).  Maja Adena and Ruben Enikolopov et. al, “Radio and the Rise of The Nazis in Prewar Germany,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 130, Issue 4, November 2015, Pages 1885–1939, https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qjv030.  Scott Gehlbach (2010), Reflections on Putin and the Media, Post-Soviet Affairs, 26:1, 77-87, DOI: 10.2747/1060-586X.26.1.77.  Maja Adena and Ruben Enikolopov et. al, “Radio and the Rise of The Nazis in Prewar Germany,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 130, Issue 4, November 2015, Pages 1885–1939, https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qjv030.  Nancy Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy 27, No. 1 (Jan 2016).