In May this year, Reporters Without Borders, also known as RSF released its annual Press Freedom Index. This report evaluates various indicators to give countries a score relative to the state’s media freedom. Poland, a country that once was 18th on the list in 2015, has fallen to 66th out of 180 countries. RSF stated that Poland has transformed its public media into “instruments of propaganda.” A number of events have occurred that have made Poland’s press landscape tenuous, all of which hinder Poland’s status as a free democracy in its post-Communist history.
A free press is an essential aspect of any democracy. It provides citizens with accurate information about their government and allows those who are abusing their power to be held accountable. It can also affect support for politicians and their parties. In a study conducted by Ruben Enikolopov and other Russian researchers, they found that independent media reduced support for a pro-government party, and increased support for centrist and leftist groups. This reinforces the idea that the media affects how citizens vote and can persuade them to support certain parties. While it is noted that the media is most powerful in weak democratic institutions, this does not mean that these findings cannot relate to Poland, a stronger democracy than the likes of Russia. It shows that the media has a powerful influence, and when not controlled by the state, it can cause support for other politicians. Poland’s media landscape is increasingly becoming state-controlled, and this will have effects on voting patterns in the future.
While Poland’s media industry still has some sense of freedom, it is increasingly being controlled by state-owned companies associated with the conservative ruling party Law and Justice, also known as PiS. In December 2020, 20 out of 24 regional daily newspapers were bought by Orlen, a Polish oil company owned partially by the government. PiS is pushing for a reduction of foreign ownership in Polish media, and this purchase is an example of this. If the government has control over media outlets, they will be able to push for the coverage they desire, and hide stories that may hurt them.
These media restrictions have played out in concurrence with the Belarusian-Polish border crisis. Immigrants primarily from northern Iraq are entering Poland via the Belarus borders, and the Polish government is violently pushing migrants back into Belarus, where they face abuse. Poland has instituted a state of emergency in the area and has banned reporters from the area. This crisis is still playing out, but in November 2021, reporters were harassed, handcuffed, and searched by Polish authorities when they were working near the border. Even though these soldiers knew that the reporters were not in the emergency area, they were still detained. All active situations regarding immigration should be handled with immense care, but that does not mean they should not be covered by the media. The Polish government does not want this human rights crisis playing out in the press, so they are aiming to block any coverage about the border. This demonstrates how the Polish government’s agenda is impacting the press when in a democracy, the press should be free to cover what their government is doing.
Since the PiS has taken power, there has also been an increase in the legal harassment of independent journalists and news outlets, those that are not controlled by state-associated companies. SLAPPs, or strategic lawsuits against public participation, have been a common tactic used by the Polish government to try and silence the media. 90 cases have been filed against the independent newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. One of which was filed by Daniel Obajtek, the CEO of Orlen, which was mentioned previously, against a journalist who had been reporting on Obajtek’s real estate dealings. The Journalism Society, a Polish NGO, found that 187 SLAPP suits had been filed since PiS entered power. 41 of these were brought by public institutions, 26 by state companies, 9 by the state broadcaster TVP, and 15 by government-appointed judges. All of these are somehow connected to the Polish government. These lawsuits greatly impact those who they are filed against, and often, it is a financial burden. Journalists who are simply trying to report on government activities should not be targeted.
One of the more well-known instances of Poland’s declining media freedom was in December 2021, when the Polish parliament passed a law that would ban non-European companies from owning Polish broadcasters. This was specifically targeted at TVN, a channel owned by the American company Discovery Inc. TVN has been critical of PiS and its government. While this law was eventually vetoed by the Polish president Andrzej Duda, this came after intense backlash from the American government and the EU. The fact that this law was supported by PiS and was targeted directly toward a critical news source demonstrates how the Polish government is using its power to attack a free press.
It is not a coincidence that once PiS came to power in 2015, Poland’s media entered its decline in terms of press freedom. This coalition works hard to control the media, from newspapers to television stations. Media is an essential part of any democracy, and if Poland’s government continues to attack it, irreversible damage will be done, and Polish citizens will suffer because of it.
Image credit: Reuters