Poland about to censor privately-owned media, like its Hungarian ally

The Polish government prepares to censor privately-owned media under the guise of “repolonizing” and “deconcentrating” their ownership. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on Germany, which currently presides over the EU Council and is a key partner of Poland, to honor its commitments regarding the rule of law.

President Andrzej Duda’s narrow reelection victory on 12 July seems to have reassured Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), sufficiently to unveil the government’s new media censorship strategy in his very first interview after the election. Under the discussed “repolonization” law, a threat that has existed since 2017 at least, foreign investors would be limited to a stake of between 15% and 30% in Polish media, while “deconcentration” would limit the number of media outlets that any one media group can own. In the interview, Kaczyński portrayed the first as a way to “ensure that there are more media outlets that present the world more truthfully” and the second as a way to apply the competition policy that is compatible with European rules. But the real goal is to influence the editorial policies of media that, for the time being, are still independent.

Controlling privately-owned media

The ruling party’s leaders say “the media in Poland should be Polish” because, according to their conspiracy theory, “the Germans” meddled in the presidential election – a barely veiled attack on the German-Swiss media group Ringier Axel-Springer, whose Polish daily Fakt covered during the campaign the case of a paedophile pardoned by President Duda. This has also resulted in the newspaper being treated a “cesspool” by the Culture Minister and the termination by several ministries of their subscription to it. A possible “repolonization” law, which would enable pro-government Polish businessmen and Polish banks to acquire stakes in media outlets, could be applied as well to Polska Press, a publishing house currently owned by the German company Verlagsgruppe Passau and controlling 20 regional media outlets.

The “deconcentration” could target Agora, the publisher of the daily Gazeta Wyborcza, which the ruling politicians are trying to intimidate by means of no fewer than 55 lawsuits. A second potential target could be the US-based Discovery, owner of TVN, an influential channel that was the target of a smear campaign by the public television TVP in April. This strategy for gaining control of privately-owned media has an alarming resemblance to the one pursued in Hungary which continues to throttle the few remaining independent media outlets – its latest victim being the news website Index.hu. During the last European summit, Budapest and Warsaw joined forces to block an agreement to establish a strong link between EU funding and democratic standards.

Germany, which has close relations with Poland, has vowed to promote the rule of law in the European Union during its Presidency. Now it’s time to act,” said Pavol Szalai, the Head of RSF’s EU and Balkans Desk. “The German EU Council Presidency has been awaited in order to find a compromise on conditioning access to EU funding on respect for the rule of law, to unblock the article 7 procedure against Poland, to incorporate the fundamental value of press freedom into this procedure and, finally, to integrate effective sanctions in the new rule of law mechanism.

The Polish government’s pressure on the public media, which helped it to win the presidential election, is not easing up in the meanwhile. Under a new regulation adopted by the Polskie Radio President Agnieszka Kamińska on 20 July, all employees are systematically required to notify management about any contacts with or invitations by other media, in which they are now forbidden to appear and talk without the board’s prior consent. And if they are given permission, they are forbidden to express any personal views on political, religious or ethical issues.

Poland is ranked 62nd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

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Updated on 31.07.2020