Democracy declining in Poland, finds Media Freedom Rapid Response mission

Press-ECPMF

11 February 2021

No Comments

mfrr logo

11 February 2021

MFRR Report: Erosion of Media Freedom Gathers Pace in Poland

IPI-led report summarises findings of international press freedom mission

Media freedom in Poland now faces its greatest set of challenges since 2015 as the government continues to wage a multi-pronged attack on independent media to muzzle critical reporting and undermine watchdog journalism, according to a new report published today by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR).

The report, Democracy Declining: Erosion of Media Freedom in Poland, is published in English and Polish and presents the findings of the international press freedom mission carried out virtually by the seven partners of the MFRR between November and December 2020.

The mission was led by the International Press Institute (IPI) and joined by Article 19, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Free Press Unlimited (FPU) and Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT).

The delegation met with key stakeholders including a wide range of editors-in-chief and journalists from across the political spectrum, as well as academics, journalist associations, civil society organizations, the Polish Ombudsman, diplomatic missions and MEPs.

Screenshot of the message displayed by independent news media media in protest at new tax.

Key Findings

The centre piece of PiS’ plans for media reform have been efforts to “repolonise” and “deconcentrate” the media market. Ostensibly aimed at creating greater pluralism, in reality these dual legal mechanisms are intended to concentrate more media under the control of the ruling party and its allies.

Faced with major political and diplomatic hurdles, so far draft legislation has yet to be introduced to parliament and PiS has instead been forced to search for alternative methods to achieve its aims. Initial efforts to copy the Hungarian system of having pro-government oligarchs step in and buy up independent titles have so far been unsuccessful.

Instead, PiS has pioneered a form of media capture unique within the European Union: the nationalisation of private media companies via state-owned and controlled companies. This model achieved its first results in December when a state energy firm headed by PiS appointees acquired control of Polska Press, in a deal that hands PiS indirect control over 20 of Poland’s 24 regional newspapers. The appointment of pro-government executives and journalists and a slow erosion of editorial independence is widely expected to follow.

By achieving this acquisition without legislative changes, the government engineered the long-awaited takeover of a foreign-owned media company without provoking diplomatic repercussions with other EU member states or a head-on collision with Brussels over the rule of law. The state energy giant PKN Orlen is now likely to remain the economic engine of PiS’ media capture model.

The bulk of PiS’s attacks are reserved for a handful of large and influential liberal-leaning private media which remain openly critical of the ruling party and its policies. In the absence of “deconcentration” legislation, PiS is instead waging a coordinated and concerted campaign of administrative pressure against these outlets aimed at destabilising and undermining their businesses.

Efforts to tighten the screws on independent media include antimonopoly investigations to block unfavoured mergers, licensing changes and a proposed new advertising tax system. Increasing government control over state regulatory bodies, advertising agencies and infrastructure such as printing presses and newsstands offer new avenues for multiplying this pressure.

State resources meanwhile continue to be weaponized to starve certain media of public advertising revenue. Since 2015, state institutions and state-owned and dependent companies stacked with PiS loyalists have ceased to subscribe to or place advertising in independent media, cutting off an important source of funding in a policy of economic strangulation.

In an extension of this pressure campaign, legal harassment of independent media in Poland also reached unprecedented levels in 2020 as PiS officials and their allies continued efforts to bury critical outlets under an avalanche of costly and time-consuming court battles. The frivolous nature of these cases means many can be classified as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP).

While physical attacks on journalists are rare in Poland, in October and November there was a clear increase in violence against journalists covering protests. Several were injured and some hospitalised after violence from both protesters and police officers. On some occasions, police hit or shot rubber bullets at journalists clearly identifiable by ‘PRESS’ insignia.

This subtle but escalating assault on the freedom of the media is driven in part by PiS’s populist ideology, which has instilled in its leaders the view that they alone represent the “will of the people”. Control of a legislative majority is wrongly taken as a carte-blanche to undermine democratic norms and solidify its control over all areas of governance. This is exacerbated by the fortress mentality of PiS leaders, who see critical journalism and investigative reporting as “oppositional”, rather than part of a democratic system’s necessary checks and balances.

Five years of these continued policies mean Poland is now taking worrying steps down the path established by Hungary, whose government has in the last decade created and then exported a system of media capture unprecedented in the European Union. In a calculated cherry-picking exercise, PiS has selected parts of its model that are effective and found workarounds for those that do not fit the Polish system. The effect, as one interviewee noted, is that “free journalism is slowly dying in Poland.”

Click here to download the full report in English and Polish.

 

Press Contact:

Jamie Wiseman, Europe Advocacy Officer, International Press Institute (IPI) jwiseman@ipi.media

 

This report is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries. This project provides legal and practical support, public advocacy and information to protect journalists and media workers. The MFRR is organised by a consortium led by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) with ARTICLE 19, the European

Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Free Press Unlimited (FPU), the Institute for Applied Informatics at the

University of Leipzig (InfAI), International Press Institute (IPI) and CCI/Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso

Transeuropa (OBCT). The project is co-funded by the European Commission. www.mfrr.eu/

Polish report

English report

This statement is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), an Europe-wide mechanism, which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries. This project provides legal and practical support, public advocacy and information to protect journalists and media workers. The MFRR is organised by an consortium led by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) with ARTICLE 19, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Free Press Unlimited (FPU), the Institute for Applied Informatics at the University of Leipzig (InfAI), International Press Institute (IPI) and CCI/Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT). The project is co-funded by the European Commission. www.mfrr.eu

Read news by categories:

Related news

Statement

EU Rule of Law report: Little bark, no bite

On 20 July, the European Commission published the 2021 Rule of Law Report. The document can be a valuable tool that empowers civil society, the EU institutions and Member State governments who care about the rule of law in the Union. However, for it to live up to the high expectations and truly become a critical tool that can contribute to the promotion and safeguarding of EU values, we believe several fundamental changes are needed in future iterations of the report.

READ MORE
Statement

ECPMF highly concerned about raid on home of The Insider editor-in-chief

The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) is highly concerned about the raid this morning on the home of investigative journalist Roman Dobrokhotov. We call on the Russian authorities to immediately halt its intensifying crackdown on independent media in the run-up to the legislative elections in September.

READ MORE
Statement

Turkey: Concern over proposals to introduce new regulation of “fake” and “foreign-funded” news

The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) and undersigned partner organisations are concerned about and condemn recent statements by Turkish President Erdoğan and other government officials pertaining to the introduction of new regulation of so-called fake news and “foreign-funded” news in the country.

READ MORE
Statement

Hungary: MFRR highly alarmed by Pegasus surveillance revelations

The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) is highly alarmed by the revelations by a consortium led by French NGO Forbidden Stories about the surveillance of journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers and others through the Pegasus spyware program developed by Israeli company NSO Group.

READ MORE
Statement

Belarus: Joint call condemning raids on media and HRDs and demanding the release of those detained

READ MORE
Statement

Georgia: ECPMF saddened by death of Alexandr Lashkarava

The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECMPF) is saddened by the death of Georgian TV camera operator Alexandr Lashkarava. Last week, far-right assailants severely beat him while he was covering attacks on LGBTQI+ activists in Tbilisi. A few days later, on 10 July, he was found dead at his home by his mother.

READ MORE