26th Jul 2021


Poland on brink of having no independent media

  • 'I have been the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza for 32 years now, since 1989, the year when Poland went through a peaceful transition from a communist dictatorship to a democracy based on free elections' (Photo: Gazeta Wyborcza)

Hark! Peace! It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman

Which gives the stern'st good-night.

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(William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 2)

Today, the owl's shriek comes from the illiberal regimes that aim to dismantle the democratic institutions within the European Union.

Poland is a prime example.

I have been the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza for 32 years now, since 1989, the year when Poland went through a peaceful transition from a communist dictatorship to a democracy based on free elections.

Gazeta Wyborcza was an important symbol of this monumental change - the first independent daily from Elbe to Vladivostok, free from censorship and political pressure.

Gazeta Wyborcza came to life as the voice of the Polish democratic opposition during the electoral campaign of 1989.

We stood for fundamental values: media freedom, civic rights, independent judiciary, economic reform and market liberalisation, transition from a one-party dictatorship to parliamentary democracy, and from a society ruled by fear to society based on freedom.

After decades of authoritarianism, Poles finally got to experience what it meant to live in a free country founded upon the rule of law. Now, however, our victory from three decades ago is under assault.

Poland, together with a number of other countries in Europe, is witnessing a creeping authoritarian coup.

The rule of law is being transformed into the rule of coterie of a single party.

The Constitutional Tribunal, prosecutor's office, police, and secret services were all turned into loyal subjects serving the ruling party that ironically calls itself Law and Justice.

Public media broadcasters were transformed into tools of shameless propaganda similar to that employed by Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey.

Independent media outlets are cast as enemies of the state and face hateful attacks that mirror those uttered on numerous occasions by Donald Trump. We are treated as enemies for the simple reason that we are independent and have the courage to speak truth to power.

The purpose behind the machinations of the ruling camp is clear to see.

It wants to ensure that no one is allowed to bring light to their abuses of power. It is for this reason that the governing majority is meticulously, step by step, dismantling the safety valves of our democratic order.

Mátyás Rákosi, the Hungarian communist dictator known as "Little Stalin", called it the salami tactics - destroying the dissent one thin slice at a time.

Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki shamelessly observed that 80 percent of the Polish media "belongs to our enemies".

Jarosław Kaczyński's regime regularly launches vicious attacks against media that dare to criticise the ruling camp - Gazeta Wyborcza among them.

Government officials, ruling party politicians and state-owned companies bring never-ending lawsuits against journalists who investigate instances of abuse of power, demanding massive legal damages and removal of articles that incriminate them.

Those strategic lawsuits against public participation, known as SLAPPs, are meant to intimidate and silence independent media.

At Gazeta Wyborcza, we have faced more than 50 SLAPP suits already – and counting.

Squeezing state revenue

After Law and Justice came to power in 2015, state institutions and companies controlled by the ruling camp terminated their subscriptions of media critical of the government and pulled out advertisements - including those on public tenders and public service announcements - from these outlets.

This party line was not altered even during the current pandemic, when reaching out to the broadest possible audience was of critical importance for public health.

However, state coffers are wide open for media that happily espouse official propaganda.

Over the last five years, they received more than €1.3bn in advertising revenue from public and state-owned entities alone. These state-controlled propaganda outlets rile up their followers by accusing independent reporters of serving foreign regimes and their interests.

Harassed and teargassed

As independent media, we uncovered several attempts at media surveillance by the secret services.

Journalists working for independent media have been harassed and teargassed by the police while reporting on anti-government protests.

In December, the state-controlled oil company PKN Orlen, the largest in central and eastern Europe, purchased Polska Press, and, in effect, a large majority of the regional media market in Poland.

The CEO of Orlen owes his meteoric career rise exclusively to being a loyal servant of Jarosław Kaczyński. The acquisition of Polska Press by Orlen is eerily reminiscent of Gazprom's takeover of NTW television broadcaster in 2001 at the request of the Kremlin. Its purpose is to dismantle editorial independence in Poland.

The recent proposal of a new media tax on advertising turnover is a clear attempt to financially bleed private outlets suffering amid the economic downturn caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and force them into the arms of the ruling camp.

If it succeeds, Poland will join the ranks of Russia and Hungary - countries with virtually no independent media.

After the current regime took control over the prosecutor's office, the Constitutional Tribunal and the Supreme Court, Poland is no longer governed by the rule of law.

We are being transformed into a single-party state and thus we are becoming the "sick man of the European community".

The battle that is taking place in Poland concerns the future of the European Union.

Other EU member states do not lack politicians who see Kaczyński's Poland as an inspiration, not as a warning. We are past the point of cautious euphemisms.

The attack on media freedom in Poland clears the way for an all-out assault on the very values on which the European Union was founded.

The aggressive rhetoric employed by the governments in Warsaw and Budapest is not too dissimilar from the narrative espoused by radical proponents of Brexit; it would fit in well with the authoritarian mob assaulting the Capitol on 5th January.

Words can cut as deep as knives; they can serve to harass and persecute people. Those who attack independent media hope to murder language as a tool for finding truth.

We are facing many more challenges ahead. Polish authorities are limiting the freedom of academic research and plan to rewrite schoolbooks.

They continue to glorify hate speech rooted in xenophobia and homophobia, to block freedom of access to public information, to create ever new hurdles for NGOs that do not toe the party line.

By standing for the most important of all European values - freedom - in Poland, you are defending the European Union, the project and promise that remains the beacon of hope for all of us.

Author bio

Adam Michnik has been the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza since 1989. He is a Polish writer and journalist, one of the leaders of the Polish democratic opposition during communist era, and a political prisoner.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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