Their dismissal in April has confirmed fears that Polska Press’s acquisition by state-controlled PKN Orlen threatens the media group’s independence. Those appointed to replace them include journalists who worked for TVP, the state-owned public TV broadcaster that has been turned into an outlet for the ruling conservative PiS party’s propaganda.
The government is clearly using the state oil company to implement its declared goal of “repolonising” the privately-owned media with the aim of influencing their editorial policy or, to put it more bluntly, censoring them.
The dismissals flout a Warsaw regional court’s decision on 8 April to suspend the acquisition pending the outcome of an appeal by Commissioner for Human Rights Adam Bodnar on the grounds that the acquisition threatens the right to reliable information and could facilitate political pressure on the media. The ruling forbids PKN Orlen from taking any decision affecting the media group in the absence of definitive court approval for the acquisition.
“The firing of the editors-in-chief of Polska Press shows that the government is ready to pursue the repolonisation at any cost, even at the expense of ignoring judicial decisions,” said Pavol Szalai, the Head of RSF’s EU and Balkans Desk. “We call on the company PKN Orlen to cancel its decisions interfering with the editorial offices and refrain from any others, as requested by the competition court. We also ask the competition watchdog to ensure this is done.”
Poland’s Office of Competition and Consumer Protection (UOKiK) did not intervene when PKN Orlen began making editorial appointments. Doubts about the competition watchdog’s independence already increased after it approved PKN Orlen’s acquisition of Polska Press (from the German group Verlagsgruppe Passau) although it previously blocked Radio Eurozet’s acquisition by Gazeta Wyborcza, an independent newspaper that is constantly harassed by the PiS.
Concern is meanwhile also growing that the ruling party could gain control of the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights. The current Commissioner’s term ends in July and the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament in which the government has a majority, has already elected a PiS member as his successor, a choice that is yet to be confirmed by the Senate, controlled by the opposition. In case of disagreement between the two chambers of the Parliament, a recent verdict of the Constitutional Court allows the Sejm to circumvent the Senate in choosing the representative of the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights and, even more seriously, reduce the Office’s competence in competition matters – the very grounds for the suspension of PKN Orlen’s acquisition of Polska Press.
Poland is ranked 64th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index, losing two ranks since last year.