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February 7, 2017 - Updated on February 8, 2017

In the run-up to Chancellor Merkel’s visit, the Polish government must respect freedom of the press

Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo (C,R) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a welcoming ceremony in Warsaw / AFP

On the occasion of the German chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Poland, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reiterates its condemnation of the demonstrative disregard leading politicians in Warsaw have shown for press freedom. The national-conservative government has brought television under its control and now systematically limits reporting from parliament. A few days ago, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who chairs the PiS party, emphasised the need to return private media to Polish ownership and to push German publishers out of the country.


As RSF Germany Executive Director Christian Mihr stated, ‘Free and diverse media are a core element of European values. The populist campaign in Poland against German television and publishers plays into the hands of the enemies of democracy. The Polish government needs to understand that it will only have access to EU funds if it recognises the core values of the union, respects freedom of the press and also allows critical debate about the government’s work to take place on television’.



TELEVISION AND RADIO UNDER GOVERNMENT CONTROL

Since it came to power, over 220 public media journalists have been fired, forced to quit or moved to less influential positions by the Polish government. A dossier prepared by the liberal journalist union Towarzystwo Dziennikarskie (TD) provides clear evidence of this.

In October and November, this situation hit Trojka particularly hard, the third programme of Polskie Radio. Several leading editors and radio presenters were moved to other positions or fired after protesting. In an open letter, 120 of their colleagues accused editor-in-chief Barbara Stanislawczyk of ‘pre-emptive censorship’ and initiated a social media campaign in protest . On 28 October, Michal Nogas, a long-term editor at Trojka, announced that he was switching to the liberal newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. In November, TVP, which by this point had become a state broadcaster, openly encouraged its employees to quit and claim redundancy pay. According to the union TD, this led another 200 journalists to quit by mid-December.

Shortly after the PiS took power, this rigorous restructuring of what had previously been public television led to noticeable changes in reporting. As a result, these channels lost huge numbers of viewers. On its main news programme Wiadomosci, the television broadcaster TVP1 campaigns against liberal government critics, and increasingly against German media that it accuses of manipulative reporting. A flawed report by the German channel ARD on the protests in the Sejm based on unsound archival material triggered this new spite. Moreover, Wiadomosci regularly decries the presence of German publishers in the Polish media market.


THE ‘RE-POLIFICATION’ OF PRIVATE MEDIA

In a recent interview with Radio Opole, the head of the PiS, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, emphasized the need to return private media to Polish ownership and in particular to buy back private media from German publishing houses . Shortly after taking power, the PiS government declared that due to the large presence of German publishers in Poland it wanted to return the national media market to Polish ownership. The Bauer Media Group for example owns over 30 print titles as well as the radio broadcaster RMF Group. Through the Polska Press group, the publishing house Verlagsgruppe Passau prints 18 regional daily newspapers and nearly 100 local weekly newspapers. In October, Polish media reported plans by Poland’s state bank PKO BP to buy Polska Press. Among other titles, the German-Swiss Ringier Axel Springer Media AG prints the tabloid Fakt, the Polish editions of the magazines Newsweek and Forbes and manages the online news portal onet.pl. The chief editor of Newsweek Tomasz Lis, a harsh critic of PiS chair Kaczynski, hosted a political talk show on TVP2 until January. The new government promptly cancelled the show, which has since been aired on sources such as onet.pl.

Polish owned newspapers critical of the government have also come under pressure, because state-owned companies will no longer place adverts in them. The liberal newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza saw its advertising revenues drop 21.5 per cent in the first six months after PiS took power. For the same reasons, the moderately conservative daily Rzeczpospolita has seen its budget cut by one-fifth.


SYSTEMATIC RESTRICTIONS ON POLITICAL REPORTING

In recent months, the Polish government has systematically restricted reporting from the Polish parliament. Journalists no longer have access to certain places such as the lobby areas surrounding the plenary hall, the restaurant or the corridor leading up to the office of the head of the Sejm. Generally, spokespersons of factions and parties now grant interviews instead of the politicians in question.


On 9 January, after weeks of protests, the PiS used the media to publicly announce their supposed change of course. Little, however, has actually changed. Press conferences continue to take place in a building annexed to the parliament that journalists complain offers too little space. During the first press conference that was held there, some camera teams were unable to enter with all of their equipment and numerous reporters had to sit on the floor. Spatial separation from parliament prevents any direct contact with politicians and reporters only receive a limited number of temporary, one-day accreditations . In mid-January Newsweek Polska reported that following the protests at the end of last year, the Polish government was planning to surround parliament by a two metre high fence .

In 2016, Poland fell 29 places on the RSF’s World Press Freedom Index compared to last year and currently ranks 47.