Poland, a Central European democratic country that constitutionally guarantees freedom of the press, has been on a downward slope in media freedom the last few years. The country, which is currently seeing widespread protests against the government’s decision to impose a near-total ban on abortion, ranked 62nd – its lowest rank ever – in the annual World Press Freedom Index compiled by the global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Specifically, two recent developments have led to a major setback for freedom of the press. In December 2020, the state-backed oil firm PKN Orlean announced its acquisition of Polska Press – one of the largest private publishers that owns about 20 daily regional newspapers, 120 regional and local weeklies, and 500 websites in Poland. This has raised concerns that the private press, like the state-owned, would turn into mouthpieces for the conservative ruling party.
More recently, in January 2021, the Polish government came up with a draft law to restrict social media platforms from blocking user accounts. The country’s Deputy Minister of Justice and Member of Parliament, Sebastian Kaleta, wrote in an article, “In Poland, we have watched with alarm as a consortium of ever more powerful, monopolistic Big Tech companies have done what was once unthinkable: de-platforming a sitting U.S. president. For us, this example—which has alarmed presidents and prime ministers across Europe and, indeed, the world—is merely the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
According to Poland’s Ministry of Justice, the proposed laws would guarantee citizens’ their freedom of speech on social media platforms. However, press organisations such as the RSF have called the move “disturbing.” So how did Poland, a country which ranked among the top 20 countries in the Press Freedom Index just five years back, come here?
The Great Fall
In 2015, shortly after coming to power, the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party passed a media bill that allowed the government to take over state-owned TV and radio broadcasters. During the time, BBC reported that tens of thousands of people took part in rallies across 19 cities in protest against the new right-wing government’s move to take control of public broadcasting.
Since then, reports have suggested that public television has turned into a mouthpiece for the PiS and an extension of their political campaign during elections. The public television station, TVP, reportedly gave more screen time to pro-PiS voices and showed negative news stories of the opposition during the last election in 2019. An article in The New York Times noted that although Poland’s media has always been polarized and previous governments have also sought influence over state-controlled broadcasters, it has never been done in “such sweeping and systemic fashion as the Law and Justice Party has.”
The PiS has not only wielded its power over Poland’s public television station, TVP, but has also tried to stifle independent and critical media through hefty fines and advertisement cutbacks. In one instance, when a television channel owned by an American media company reported stories of far-right extremist groups in the country, the station and its journalists came under heavy criticism from the government.
Politicians affiliated to the ruling party have also hinted at “repolanizing” and “decentralizing” the media, which essentially meant limiting foreign ownership and breaking up big publishers of the vast, diverse media landscape of the country. The conservative government’s huge influence on Poland’s media has given rise to several media freedom violations in the recent years.
Media Freedom Violations
Agata Grzybowska, a photojournalist, was detained and charged with “violation of a policeman’s physical integrity” while covering protests against the abortion law in November 2020. Several journalists came under attack in the violence during the protests, which are ongoing till date as the law has come into effect.
The investigation of Grzegorz Rzeczkowski, a journalist, for covering a mayor’s assassination raised concerns about the Polish judicial system’s intimidation of independent journalists.
In another incident in 2019, journalist Anna Wilk was sentenced to a three-year ban on practicing journalism and a fat fine for reports on the suicide of a electric company’s employee.
More recently, in January this year, journalist Piotr Żytnicki faced a homophobic attack from a Catholic priest during an online mass. “Over the years of my work as a journalist, I have met with hatred from various sides, so this is nothing new for me. However, I would never expect such a vulgar attack from a Catholic priest,” said Żytnicki.