31st May 2023


Is Poland ending 200 years of freedom of expression?

  • With its strategy to silence journalists, the Polish government is not only clashing with the EU. The US now too is calling it incompatible with Nato membership. (Photo: Reuters/Kacper Pempel)

For decades Polish journalists have been their nation's best ambassadors. Ryszard Kapuściński, reported on dictators in Africa during Poland's communist years after 1950. He did not attack the ruling regime in Warsaw. But everyone got the message.

After 1990 Gazeta Wyborcza, the paper founded by Poland's best known journalist, Adam Michnik, was central to Poland's re-entry into European democracy after the dark decades of Soviet control.

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The sparky irreverence of Polish journalists exposed the failings of previous centre-left and neo-liberal pro-business administrations.

But Poland's journalism is now under threat. Since the Catholic-nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS in its Polish acronym) formed its second government in 2015 there has been relentless onslaughts on Polish journalism.

These owe more to the media management techniques of Russian president Vladimir Putin than the traditions Polish journalists once upheld.

As well as defying the rest of Europe on judicial independence, women, and LGBTI modernity, the PiS government has worked tirelessly to dilute and weaken Polish journalism so that reporters just give up holding any of the ruling elites to account.

At one level there is nothing new in this. Politicians in democracies have always sought to influence, cajole or even control the press and later broadcasters.

Former US president Donald Trump was helped by Fox News, the campaign by British prime minister Boris Johnson to cut links was Europe was supported for decades by influential papers like the Daily Telegraph, and Italy's former leader Silvio Berlusconi twisted Italy's television ownership rules to create a network of TV stations that backed his idiosyncratic politics.

But these efforts did not on the whole involve the full power and authority of government as is the case in Poland.

Three steps to silence journalists

Step One in Poland was to remove independent journalists from key position in public broadcasting.

As soon as PiS won power in 2015, there was a wholesale purge of editors and journalists from Polish Radio and Polish TV - the equivalent of the BBC in Poland. They were replaced by PiS supporters.

Step Two was to start using criminal libel law against journalists.

In a splendid acronym called 'SLAPP', government departments, ministers, PiS appointed judges, business oligarchs linked to the ruling party, and wealthy individuals are allowed to use Polish law to launch a 'Strategic Law Suit Against Public Participants" against any journalist or media outlet.

Judges can hand down fines or even threaten prison sentences against journalists. The PiS linked initiators of SLAPPs have bottomless purses. Those they attack do not. The object is to intimidate and demoralise the journalist or editor with law cases that can last forever.

Poland's Society of Journalists have identified 187 different legal attacks launched by PiS and its networks against Polish reporters and editors since 2016.

Step Three is to force the compulsory sale of media outlets to PiS supporting firms.

Already a network of 24 regional newspapers was fire-sold after PiS pressure to a firm allied to the ruling party. PiS wants not just to control the national political agenda in the Sejm, Poland's parliament but as far as possible ensure that PiS's voice dominates in Poland's regions, cities and towns.

Now the regime has its eyes on Poland's most popular independent and balanced TVN24 news network. It was launched soon after the end of communism with investment by France's Canal+ group.

They sold on to the US Discovery Channel. Discovery does npt do politics, but it does believe in western norms of independent journalism.

The Putinisation of Polish media

This is unacceptable to the PiS aim of the 'Putinisation' of Polish media. The regime has proposed a legal change saying the foreign owners of any media in Poland have to be based in the European Union or European Economic Area to include Switzerland.

At one level this is sheer chutzpah as the EU is bearing down hard on the PiS attack on an independent judiciary.

The idea of the PiS boss Jarosław Kaczynski praying in aid Europe to boot out US Discovery is like something Ryzard Kapuściński might have written in one of his books on African despots.

Discovery is merging with Warner Brothers to form a $130 billion global media giant. The idea of gay-hating Polish politicians trying to impose a Putin media model on Poland will not appeal to the nation of the first amendment and no holds barred freedom of expression.

However a PiS law-maker, the Sejm deputy Marek Suski, said forcing the sale of the US media giant to Polish businessmen, would give the government "some influence" over TVN.

Not even Vladimir Putin puts it quite so crudely. In Washington, a group of senior US senators on the influential foreign affairs committee, once chaired by president Joe Biden, have condemned the attempts to force Discovery out of Poland.

It is not just about the EU. American law-makers say that Nato membership is incompatible with the kind of attacks on free journalism now at the heart of ruling regime's ideological matrix in Warsaw.

For roughly 200 years the idea of democracy and progress was inextricably was linked to freedom of expression and journalism. But in Poland for how much longer?

Author bio

Denis MacShane is a former President of the UK National Union of Journalists. He wrote the first book in English on Polish Solidarity in 1982. He was Minister of Europe in the Tony Blair administration and helped negotiate Poland’s entry into the EU.


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

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