After RSF warnings of a media freedom risk, Norwegian fund places Polish company under surveillance
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) welcomes the decision by Norway’s sovereign wealth fund to heed RSF’s warnings and place a Polish state-controlled company under surveillance because of the threat to press freedom posed by its acquisition of a media group. RSF calls on the Polish government to reassure its international partners by ceasing to interfere in the media.
RSF’s warnings about the situation in Poland are being heard. A report drafted in October 2022 by the Council on Ethics of Norway’s government pension fund – which is the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund – cites RSF’s findings and recommendations several times. And it was on the basis of this report that the pension fund decided on 22 February 2023 to place Polski Koncern Naftowy Orlen, a Polish state-controlled oil company also known as PKN Orlen, under observation for three years because its takeover of the Polska Press group could have an “adverse impact on freedom of expression.”
The report of the Council on Ethics says that “since the current ruling party [Law and Justice/PiS] came to power in Poland in 2015, it has reportedly taken several steps to increase its influence over national media in Poland.” Referring to an RSF press release from 31 July 2020, the report says the party has “the expressly stated goal of limiting foreign ownership of the media, a policy dubbed ‘repolonisation.’” RSF’s release drew attention to this policy and its goal of reducing international investment in Poland’s privately-owned media.
Referring to a press release that RSF published on 10 May 2021, the report notes that NGOs, including RSF, have “expressed grave concerns that political influence over Polska Press has increased as a result of the acquisition.” RSF’s release asked PKN Orlen to stop meddling in editorial appointments at Polska Press. Finally, the report points out that: “Since 2015, the country has fallen 46 places on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. It is now ranked 64 of 180 countries.”
“The Norwegian sovereign wealth fund's decision shows that press freedom violations have repercussions on Poland’s relations with its major international partners, and not just in the political domain. We welcome the initiative taken by the Norwegian fund, which is an original and promising approach. To go further, it would be useful for the fund to make public the reports of its monitoring of PKN Orlen. As for the Polish government, it must end its ‘repolonisation’ policy, which is a policy of interference in the media.
Announcing the decision to place PKN Orlen under observation for a period of three years on 22 February, the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund said it was because of the “unacceptable risk that the company contributes to serious violations of human rights.” The fund has a 1.15% stake in PKN Orlen.
In its report, the Council on Ethics said it feared that the state-controlled company’s acquisition of Polska Press in 2020 could result in “the exercise of political influence” over the media group and that, even if the level of risk was hard to estimate, it was “particularly serious in connection with elections.” When the next parliamentary elections are held this autumn, the decision means the fund will be monitoring PKN Orlen and could shed its stake in the event of any breach of ethics.
When PKN Orlen took over Polska Press, which publishes 24 very influential regional newspapers, it talked of a new commercial strategy but it proceeded to replace critical journalists by pro-government media executives, including executives from TVP, the public TV broadcaster that has been turned into a PiS propaganda mouthpiece. The Council on Ethics referred to TVP’s transformation and to the concerns voiced by RSF about meddling in editorial decision-making that should be independent.
The European Commission quotes RSF’s publications extensively in its annual reports on the rule of law in the 27 EU member states, including Poland.
Poland is ranked 66th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2022 World Press Freedom Index, while Norway is ranked first.