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29th May 2022

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Polish editor: Why I blacked out my front page

  • Rzeczpospolita's website on Wednesday, urging PiS to 'withdraw its plans' (Photo: rp.pl)

Poland's right-wing rulers will row back on plans for a "political" tax on free press after a media blackout, the editor of one leading newspaper has predicted.

"Based on the reactions [to the blackout], I believe the tax won't go through," Bogusław Chrabota, the editor of Polish liberal-conservative daily Rzeczpospolita told EUobserver on Wednesday (10 February).

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  • Rzeczpospolita editor Bogusław Chrabota: media tax is "clearly political" (Photo: Artur Andrzej)

"Luckily, the situation in Poland is not so bad as in Hungary. Government media have just one tenth of the readers, viewers, or listeners compared to the private sector ... we showed that yesterday," he added.

The draft tax bill on media advertising is currently undergoing a public consultation period.

"And our action was a form of consultation - the most brutal one we could think of," Chrabota said.

The tax is to levy zł 1 billion (€220m) from the media sector on grounds of raising funds to combat the pandemic.

It comes in an environment where government press, which Chrabota called "pure propaganda", get zł 2 billion a year in state funds, while private media have haemorrhaged income due to the corona-linked economic downturn.

The "asymmetric and selective" tax could cost thousands of jobs, according to 42 private media firms who signed an open letter against it on Wednesday.

And it will cause "permanent" damage long after the pandemic is gone, the letter warned.

The firms, which included foreign companies such as French broadcaster Canal + and German group Axel Springer, surprised Polish society the same day when they published black screens with stark warnings in place of the news, sports, and entertainment that millions had expected to wake up to.

"Unfree press: Our content should be here. But if government plans go through, one day it might really vanish," left-wing daily Gazeta Wyborcza's front page said.

"Your favourite internet service should be here, but you won't see any content today," online news agency Onet.pl said.

"This is what the world will look like without free press," it said.

For its part, the main government megaphone, the TVP broadcaster, kept going as if nothing had happened, while devoting minor segments to government critics of the private-sector protest.

The attempt to financially gut Poland's free press is just the latest episode in the ruling Law and Justice party's (PiS) drift into right-wing authoritarianism.

The EU has triggered a sanctions process against PiS' political capture of courts over the past five years and withheld funding over its attacks on Poland's LGBTI minority.

And the European Commission also spoke out against the media tax on Wednesday.

"The pandemic hit the media sector hard ... governments should help media stay on, not go dark," EU values commissioner Věra Jourová said.

"Free and independent media are an essential cornerstone of our common European house," commission vice-president Frans Timmermans added.

The media tax was the brainchild of Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Rzeczpospolita's Chrabota told EUobserver.

And Morawiecki put it forward in a PiS beauty contest to ingratiate himself with the powerful party chairman and deputy prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński.

"Kaczyński doesn't get involved in policy making, but he has an autarkic vision for Poland," Chrabota said.

"He [Kaczyński] doesn't understand the importance of foreign investment [for Poland's economy] and he particularly distrusts foreign-owned and German-owned media," Chrabota added.

The Rzeczpospolita editor believed Morawiecki's tax would fall not just due to the public reaction to the blackout, but because competing government factions, led by justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro and economy minister Jarosław Gowin, wanted Morawiecki to fail.

The infighting also comes amid an anti-PiS backlash over its recent abortion ban.

Dark future?

But if Chrabota was too optimistic and the tax was to go through, then Polish people's future might be worse than dark screens.

"The purpose of the tax is clearly political - to hurt media, to show the power of the state ... to tell us: 'If you keep being insolent, then we'll hit you even harder," he said.

And looking at the kind of content PiS wanted Polish people to consume - TVP - Chrabota, the 56-year old editor, who was born under Poland's former communist regime, said it was "not journalism at all, it's pure propaganda".

"It's like a party bulletin by the PRL," he said, referring to the communist Polish People's Republic, which fell in 1989.

TVP, which is run by a PiS minister, recently fired a young reporter for wearing a heart-shaped lapel badge in support of the women's rights movement in another sign of Kaczyńskist chauvinism.

But when asked about it by EUobserver, Chrabota was not surprised.

"It's disgusting, but they [TVP] have sacked hundreds of people for similar reasons before," he said.

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