Polish daily newspapers, some with the message "Media without choice," took part in a media blackout on February 10, 2021 accusing the government of designing a tax that would limit freedom of expression and media pluralism. (AFP/Wojtek Radwanski)

Mission Journal: ‘Trench warfare’ in Polish press as government eyes next election cycle

“Media without choice.” On February 10, this sentence ran on the otherwise empty front page of Gazeta Wyborcza, the largest critical newspaper in Poland. On the same day, Radio ZET, a commercial radio station, ran this message on repeat, evoking the country’s communist past: “You will not hear any of our normal broadcasts today…We are protesting so that you can see what Poland will look like without independent media.”

Dozens of other private Polish outlets went dark: newspapers and magazines suspended publication, news websites published black pages, and radio and TV stations stopped broadcasting, all in protest of a government proposal to tax media outlets two to 15 percent on ad revenue, depending on their size. In an open letter published by news outlets the day before the protest, 43 publishers and media organizations implored Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to cancel the proposed tax, calling it an “an exceptionally heavy burden” and “extortion.”

Two weeks later, on March 5, there was another protest regarding a Polish press freedom issue – this one launched by an individual. Poland’s constitutionally independent national human rights commissioner, Adam Bodnar, asked a court to waive Poland’s consumer protection agency’s decision to allow a partly state-owned petrol company to buy a major regional publisher. According to news reports, the month before, the agency had permitted the company, PKN Orlen, to buy Polska Press, publisher of hundreds of news outlets with an audience of 17.4 million people. In Bodnar’s view, PKN Orlen’s purchase of Polska Press from German company Verlagsgruppe Passau portends disaster for independent journalism in Poland. The company “could easily gain influence over editorial boards, and thus transform a free press, which is tasked with producing honest and fact-based criticism of the public administration and the people who man it, into pro-government information and propaganda bulletins,” he wrote in his appeal to the court, according to news reports. The court is now considering his request.

Both the proposed tax, now under revision following the protest, and the state-owned company’s purchase of Polska Press were top of mind with a dozen journalists and press freedom advocates who spoke with CPJ during a fact-finding mission conducted through video calls in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They told CPJ that the government, led by the right wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, which narrowly won a second term in 2019, is now moving to consolidate its power ahead of the next parliamentary elections in 2023. One of its tactics in that consolidation, they said, is to worsen the business environment in which Poland’s still vibrant private media operates. Many of them warned of the erosion of the independent press with methods pulled from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s playbook: the forcible closure of some independent outlets, a government takeover of others, and the deliberate distortion of the market. “All Polish media are supposed to speak with one voice, like those praising Putin or Orbán,” wrote Gazeta Wyborcza Editor-in-Chief Adam Michnik in Project Syndicate.

As CPJ documented during its previous missions in 2018 and 2019, since PiS came to power in 2015, critical journalists have endured smear campaigns by pro-government media and defamation and privacy lawsuits by politicians, state-linked companies, and institutions. (Gazeta Wyborcza is facing 60 such ongoing lawsuits.) Critical journalists have also faced access limitations as government authorities and ruling party politicians often refuse to give interviews or provide official information. In addition, state companies and institutions do not subscribe to critical newspapers, and state advertising has been channeled to pro-government media. “Whenever I work on an investigative story, I have to do my reporting knowing that I will not receive any official information and once the story is published, I have to be prepared to be attacked personally on social media or legally, through lawsuits,” Anna Gielewska, vice-chairperson of Fundacja Reporterów, a Polish investigative journalism organization, told CPJ.

The ruling party has also called for what it termed the “repolonization” of commercial media owned by international companies, including influential news websites, tabloids, regional newspapers, and TV stations, some of which are under Swiss-German and U.S. ownership. As CPJ previously documented, draft legislation to limit foreign funding for media companies has been ready for years; the government has been waiting for the right political moment to bring it to parliament. In 2019, PiS tried to grease the wheel by campaigning on the issue. Ruling party politicians, including the current prime minister, accused foreign owned outlets of “fooling the Poles” by spreading the opposition’s “deceitful propaganda.”

The prospect of “repolonization” provoked international criticism, threatened a row with the EU, and prompted diplomatic pressure from the now former German and U.S. ambassadors. Bowing to international pressure, proponents have yet to bring a “repolonization” bill to parliament. 

After “repolonization”

Veteran Polish investigative journalist Wojciech Cieśla, who works for Investigate Europe, a cross-border investigative journalism organization, told CPJ that in the wake of the failure of the “repolonization” effort Polish authorities “changed tactics” to pressure media “with a business approach.” He thinks that both the advertising tax and Polska Press takeover point to the same conclusion. “It is not about whether [a media outlet] is Polish or not, but rather how to turn outlets into polite and loyal media towards those in power, like they did with public radio and TV,” he said. As CPJ documented, the government effectively took control of public media in its first four years in power, turning public outlets into propaganda machines which boosted the party’s election chances, a conclusion backed by international election observers.

Witold Głowacki, editor at Polska Times, which is published by Polska Press, told CPJ he is worried that his outlet could also be forced to print propaganda in the wake of PKN Orlen’s takeover of Polska Press. “For the time being, our work has not changed but we are, of course, full of concerns that this scenario could be repeated,” he said. The millions who read Polska Press’s hundreds of news outlets tend to be based in rural Poland; they comprise an especially important voter group for PiS. PKN Orlen  — which in 2020 also bought majority stakes in the country’s main newspaper distributor — emphasized in a statement that the expansion into the media sector fits into its long-term strategy to increase retail sales.

Critics of the deal, however, say that the political motives are clear: the takeover was orchestrated by the government appointed CEO of PKN Orlen, Daniel Obajtek, a close ally of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kacyznski, and it fits into the media strategy of the ruling party. Bogusław Chrabota, the president of the Chamber of Press Publishers, which represents the business interests of Polish newspaper publishers, told the Polish Senate in January that the deal amounts to the “destruction of a press segment.” Paweł Fąfara, editor-in-chief of Polska Press, issued an emotional full-page letter to readers after the purchase was finalized, vowing to continue “independent, honest and free journalism” even if “for whatever reason” it is only able to do it for “a month or even a day.”

CPJ emailed questions to Polish authorities concerning the impact on press freedom in Poland of the planned advertising tax and PKN Orlen’s buyout of Polska Press. Anna Pawłowska-Pojawa, director of the Information Centre of Ministry Of Culture, National Heritge and Sport, told CPJ by email that the advertising tax is based on actions in some other EU countries, adding, “The proposed solution imposes solely a fiscal obligation on the media and, as such, does not lead to any restriction of their freedom.” Regarding the Polska Press deal she said, “Changes in media ownership are quite frequent and do not affect the assessment of media freedom and freedom of expression, which are guaranteed in the Polish Constitution.” She said the deal was undertaken by PKN Orlen’s management board, not its owners, which include the State Treasury as majority shareholder. PKN Orlen did not answer CPJ’s questions sent by email.

On CPJ’s virtual fact-finding mission, concerns were palpable among journalists and executives of foreign-owned media outlets, some of whom requested anonymity given the heightened political tension over the business deal. They said PKN Orlen’s purchase of Polska Press signaled the ruling party’s possible future intention to use state-owned companies to buy out private media outlets. These fears have been fueled by news reports in November that people close to the government had held talks on a potential takeover of TVN, an influential commercial channel which is a subsidiary of the U.S. Discovery Channel network. The reports were quickly denied by TVN and others.

Advertising tax as a threat

“What we see is repolonization in practice, a smart way [to nationalize] the media,” a business executive working for a foreign-owned media company told CPJ on the condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation. Andrzej Stankiewicz, a journalist for Onet which is owned by the German-Swiss publisher Ringier Axel Springer, told CPJ that he is worried about press freedom in light of the upcoming election. “Step by step, and using different methods, they will fight against independent journalists to prepare for the next elections in 2023 and to control as many media [outlets] as they can,” he said of ruling party politicians. He predicts more deals like the PKN Orlen takeover and that state-controlled companies will try to manipulate independent outlets by dangling lucrative advertising deals in exchange for favorable coverage. All this, plus the general weakening of the business environment for independent outlets, will force their owners — foreign or local — to consider leaving the Polish market altogether, he said.

Critics of the planned advertising tax say it is an important part of the government’s strategy to weaken independent media ahead of the 2023 election. The government’s official explanation is that the tax will help fund Poland’s health care system during the pandemic by increasing contributions from internet giants like Facebook and Google. Private publishers, however, claim that the tax disproportionately punishes independent media houses registered in Poland during an otherwise difficult economic period. In their open letter protesting the tax, publishers estimated that big international internet companies will only pay a collective 50-100 million Polish zloty ($13-26 million) a year, compared to local media companies, which will collectively pay 800 million zloty ($206 million) per year, threatening their viability. The proposed tax is now under government review following protests in Poland and criticism from the EU.

With the tax on hold, there is “cause for optimism for journalists,” Bartosz Wieliński, head of the foreign desk at Gazeta Wyborcza, told CPJ. He said he was impressed by the massive media protest on February 10, calling it an unprecedented show of solidarity in Poland’s otherwise polarized journalism community.

Krzysztof Bobiński, a board member of the Society of Journalists, an independent trade group, also said that the response to the proposed advertising tax was instructive, showing that the independent press sector will push back against efforts to weaken it. “It is basically trench warfare,” he said of the government’s increasing pressure on journalists, and the counterpressure exerted in such protests. “I do not expect the front lines moving in any direction,” he told CPJ.