Entering the historic site of the Gdansk shipyard, one cannot miss the wooden boards hanging over the famous gate No. 2. Handwritten in 1980, they display the list of demands of the strikers led by Lech Walesa, the founder of Solidarity, the independent trade union movement that pushed for social change in communist Poland. Number three on the list demands freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which had been denied to Poles for generations.
Thirty-eight years later, the extent to which this freedom is enjoyed is in doubt, with many journalists saying authorities are trying to impose new restrictions on their right to work freely. The government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, has taken control of public media, threatened reporters with legal action, limited access to officials, and used advertising and subscriptions to wield influence over news outlets. I learned on a recent visit to Warsaw and Gdansk that some journalists are worried the government will try to bring the country’s privately owned press under tighter control before parliamentary elections scheduled for 2019.
“Journalists in public media are under political pressure, they have to be careful about what they say, who they invite for their program. What is happening is unprecedented,” Krzysztof Bobinski, board member of the Society of Journalists trade organization, said at a panel discussion in Gdansk on February 15.
Shortly after the PiS came to power in October 2015, it approved legislation which gave the Treasury Minister power to hire and fire public broadcasting chiefs–a power previously in the hands of a media supervisory committee, with delegates representing all political sides. The public channels are an important source of information in Poland, especially outside urban areas, and the move drew international condemnation.
Critics say tighter control of political discourse is the main motive behind the dismissal of more than 200 public service journalists, which the Society of Journalists is tracking on its website. Dorota Glowacka, the coordinator of the Observatory of Media Freedom in Poland, a legal program set up by the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights that has investigated some of the dismissals and is providing legal aid, said she can “state with confidence” that many of them were dismissed for political reasons. “These personnel changes were necessary to turn the public radio and TV into what it is now–a government propaganda tool,” said Andrzej Krajewski, a journalist and free speech expert who prepared a detailed report on the state broadcasters’ performance.
In an emailed response to the findings of CPJ’s report, Artur Lompart, head of the press office at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, denied that any dismissals from public media were politically motivated.
A three-hour train ride from Gdansk, sitting in a Warsaw cafe, Jerzy Sosnowski, a prominent radio journalist, told me his story. When the government took over public media, Sosnowski criticized the legislation in a newspaper and on his personal blog. In March 2016, he was fired from public Polskie Radio, for “lack of loyalty” to his employer. He said he was proud to have been dismissed. “I would not have followed the government’s political expectations, anyway,” he said. Sosnowski is suing Polskie Radio, seeking compensation for unlawful dismissal; he won in the first instance but the employer has appealed. He suspects that his firing was political revenge for criticizing the government as head of a trade union at the public radio, and because he did the same during the first PiS government between 2005 and 2007, when he says he also felt excessive interference by the then-ruling party.
Other journalists, including those in privately owned media, have found themselves in court, and not by their own choice. “Which legal case are you interested in? I have something like 15 of them running at the same time,” said Tomasz Piatek an investigative reporter for the independent newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, with a smile. Piatek is the author of a book published last year on the former defense minister’s alleged network of Russian contacts. The politician filed a criminal complaint against Piatek in connection with the book, accusing him of “using force or threats against a public official.” If convicted, the reporter could face a two to three year jail sentence. In an unprecedented move, the case was prepared by military prosecutors, and could be heard by a military court, although its jurisdiction has not been finalized. “The former government was far from being perfect with the press, but was democratic. This government is authoritarian,” Piatek told me.
Wojciech Ciesla, an investigative reporter at the weekly magazine Newsweek Polska and founder of the investigative reporters’ organization Fundacja Reporterow, also says the government is targeting critical journalists with legal harassment. “When I investigate about a state body, a state official or a state company, I am writing my article already as a form of potential defense at the court,” he told CPJ. “I can be pretty sure that they will sue me at the court or at least threaten me with a lawsuit. This is part of the psychological pressure to make me think twice before I do investigations again.”
“If there are cases of journalists being sued for writing about Polish officials, the suit is brought on the account of infringement of one’s good name, not because of political reasons,” Lompart of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in his emailed statement to CPJ. “All citizens may sue others, including journalists, in civil courts.”
But Glowacka, of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, said the current administration has increased the use of criminal defamation against journalists. “We clearly see dangerous tendencies here, and it seems everyone but the pro-government media is targeted,” she said, adding that authorities are also using more serious criminal provisions seldom before applied to the press, such as public insult or humiliation against a constitutional authority. The most prominent is the case of Gazeta Wyborcza reporter Wojciech Czuchnowski, who is under investigation for insult of a constitutional body for examining connections between top judges of the Constitutional Tribunal and the intelligence agency. In some rare cases, even espionage charges against journalists have been threatened, like in the case of a Newsweek Polska investigative reporter who wrote about the dealings of a state company. Glowacka said she also sees a growing number of cases where the prosecution has asked courts to request that journalists reveal their sources, which, together with the poor protection of journalists against surveillance, she says is enough to intimidate sources and whistleblowers. “Sometimes they use even provisions unrelated to press freedom like trespassing [to legally threaten journalists],” she said, evoking the case of a photojournalist charged for reporting from an environmental protest. “This is just a minor demeanor but the journalist will have to invest time and money to go to court and prepare the case with lawyers.”
In her opinion, these measures place in an increasingly threatening context, where a contested new law criminalizing statements in relation to historical events–in particular accusations against Poland or Polish people of complicity in crimes committed during the Holocaust–poses a risk to journalists. The statute introduces new provisions to the civil libel law pertaining to the protection of Poland’s “good name.” Glowacka said, “We fear that these very broad terms might be used against journalists to stifle debate on the current political situation. It might also endanger journalists who criticize the government in international media.”
Asked about the law’s implications for journalists, spokesman Lompart said in his emailed statement that it “does not pose a threat to freedom of speech or freedom of scientific research, which is guaranteed in an unequivocal manner including in the Constitution of the Republic of Poland.”
However, several of the journalists with whom I spoke told me that they worry when speaking with international reporters that their words might be turned against them, presenting them as unpatriotic or anti-Polish in the government-friendly media. “They often suggest that we are traitors, unpatriotic, that we are fake news media, and try to undermine our credibility in all possible ways,” said Bartosz Wielinski, head of the foreign desk at Gazeta Wyborcza. “I was called Nazi collaborator just because I talked to German politicians or traitor because I gave information to The New York Times.”
Press freedom advocates argue that the state of media freedom is closely linked to the overall rule of law, which is also at risk in Poland, according to the European Union. At the end of last year, the European Commission, in response to a series of reforms that the Commission says have compromised judicial independence, triggered Article 7 of the Treaty of the EU, threatening disciplinary measures. The 13 new laws in two years–according to the EU–allows the government to “interfere significantly” in the judiciary and in the way judges are nominated. The reforms could significantly impact the legal threats to journalists. “At the end of the day everything ends up at the courts,” said Bobinski of the Society of Journalists, adding that if judges do not deliver fair verdicts on press freedom cases, “we are finished.” In his emailed statement, Lompart denied that the reforms would compromise the independence of the courts or judges.
Access to authorities is another hurdle for critical journalists. “They do not give us interviews; most of the time we have to go off the record with government officials or ruling party politicians,” said Vadim Makarenko, a reporter for Gazeta Wyborcza and member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Makarenko recounted the story of reporters hired by his newspaper who, once they joined, felt a change in the behavior of their government sources. Sometimes government politicians even boast about not speaking with critical news outlets, and making it harder for newspapers viewed as opposition-aligned to get access to information. Recently, privately-owned media were excluded from a press conference in the Constitutional Tribunal, while journalists working for state-funded media were able to attend. In another case, privately owned TV stations received the recording of a speech by the prime minister well after the state broadcaster, local media reported. “We are viewed as public enemies, just because we do not share the same values and we have different opinion about Poland. Taking the power accountable is seen [as] unpatriotic,” said Ciesla of Newsweek Polska.
Lompart said in his emailed statement to CPJ that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs “makes no distinction” between Polish journalists and gives all media equal access to events. He did not address the government’s practices more broadly. In a separate emailed statement, Stanisław Starnawski, head of communications at the Chancellery of the Prime Minister, told CPJ there are “not only no restrictions but a lot of activities to facilitate” contact between journalists and government officials.
After PiS came to power, outlets critical of the government were quickly stripped of state advertising, or advertising of state-owned companies, which had previously been an important source of revenue, according to a 2017 report by Freedom House on the climate for the Polish press. Similarly, these media outlets have seen a decrease in subscriptions by state entities, like ministries. Copies of these newspapers have become even harder to find in news stands at service stations controlled by the state run network, local media has reported. Makarenko said these moves by the government aim to undermine the revenue structure of these newspapers and indirectly force critical journalists to curb expensive investigations. Lompart denied that the government has a policy to penalize critical outlets by reducing advertising or subscriptions, or by curbing circulation. “The new government decided to decrease expenditures for advertisements in media as the announcements may be published on institutional websites free of charge,” he stated in his email.
However, adding to journalists’ concerns, in December 2017 the country`s media regulator slapped a 1.5 million zloty ($415,000) fine on the leading news broadcaster, TVN24, in relation to its coverage in 2016 of protests in parliament against new rules restricting reporters’ access. The accusation against the U.S.-owned TVN24 was that its coverage “propagated illegal activities and encouraged behavior threatening security.” The huge fine provoked protests from international press freedom organizations and the U.S. Embassy, and was finally annulled in January.
Still, some journalists see the attempt to pose such a hefty fine as a prelude to a concerted move by state-owned entities to buy out, before the 2019 parliamentary elections, influential news outlets now in private, mainly foreign hands.
According to persistent rumors in Warsaw, the government is ready with draft legislation, and only waiting for the right political moment to put forward a law aiming to “repolonize” the country’s press by imposing a limit on the level of foreign capital in media companies. Segments of the private media, including the tabloid press or the network of regional dailies, are dominated by foreign owners, mainly German companies, and are often critical of government.
“A new bill regulating the media market in Poland has been put on hold and it is no longer being debated,” Lompart said in his emailed statement to CPJ.
Back in Gdansk at the Free European Media Conference, Bobinski of the Society of Journalists trade organization said of this worry: “You can feel it, you can smell it, it is in the air.”
But the journalistic community in Poland is deeply polarized, and many say that things are no worse than under the previous government led by the center-right Civic Platform (PO) party – which, like PiS, has roots in the 1980s Solidarity movement.
On the panel in Gdansk, Alexandra Rybinska from the Association of Polish Journalists (SDP) mocked her opponents: “What they are saying is that everything is still OK, but now very very soon, there will be something terrible happening.” She indicated that some journalists are creating their own climate of self-censorship. “By saying that censorship might come back, we are creating an atmosphere of fear which is based on nothing, exactly nothing,” she said.
Wojciech Ciesla of Newsweek Polska does not think so, saying, “If (the pressures) continue like this for the next six-seven years, I don’t know how many journalists will continue to be investigating.”
Gazeta Wyborcza‘s Wielinski said the most important thing now is “for Polish journalists to retain positions, do not allow any setback. When we are out of the game, the country is out too,” he said.
[Reporting from Warsaw and Gdansk]
EDITOR’S NOTE: The time frame in the second paragraph has been corrected.