For the past four years, the Law and Justice government has caused many headaches for the European Union and has repeatedly been in the news because of all the measures it has adopted or announced that violate EU norms, including measures affecting press freedom.
As a result, after six warnings, the European Commission was driven to trigger article 7 of the European Union treaty for the first time in EU history in December 2017 on the grounds of a “serious breach” of EU values.
“In practice, nothing seems able to rein in the conservative government in its determination to ‘re-found’ Poland and ‘re-Polishize’ the media,” said Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk. “Press freedom has been one of the main victims of its policies and it is disturbing to see PiS reinforcing its all-out repressive policies against the media.”
The public media were officially rebaptized “national media” in January 2016 and were turned into government propaganda outlets that constantly praise the ruling party. As those placed in charge of the state broadcast media tolerate no criticism, more than 250 journalists resigned in the two years that followed the reform.
At the same time, the pressure on the independent media has grown steadily and is now tantamount to full-blown judicial harassment. RSF was appalled by the unprecedented nature of the complaint brought against an investigative journalist in 2017, who found himself facing a possible three-year jail sentence on a terrorism charge because of the book he had written about the then defence minister.
Journalists with Gazeta Wyborcza, the independent daily that is the government’s bugbear, have been threatened with prosecution on charges of criminal defamation – punishable by imprisonment under Poland’s penal code – for refusing to take down articles that reflected badly on Law and Justice’s leader. As a result, it has been hard for other journalists not to think that could also have problems if they tackle similar subjects.
Independent journalists, privately-owned TV channels and foreign-owned media groups have all become the enemies of a government that wants to eliminate them in order to continue tightening its grip on key state institutions such as the Constitutional Court, so that the rule of law violations of the past four years could become virtually irreversible.
As Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has gone so far as to claim that “80% of the Polish media are controlled by PiS’ political opponents, who have incessantly attacked the government,” concern has grown in the run-up to these elections.
Law and Justice even let it be known that it wanted to pass a special law for journalists and introduce a selection process based on loyalty to the party. Despite promises that it will not threaten the “principle of transparency of the profession of journalist,” it is widely feared that another setback for the rule of law’s defenders on Sunday will leave Poland firmly in the camp of Europe’s authoritarian regimes.
Poland is ranked 59th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.