Press under fire

by Agata Szczęśniak

The new Poland (Issue III/2021)

Being a journalist in Poland gets riskier with each passing year. In the Reporters Without Borders global press freedom ranking for 2021, Poland plummeted to 64th place out of a total of 180 - sinking a full 40 places compared to 2015 when the PiS party took over the government. At the same time, an ever-increasing proportion of Poles now consume almost exclusively information filtered by the government. How did it come to this?

First of all, the crisis of the traditional media does not affect Poland alone: the circulation of the print press is also falling in other countries, some titles are shifting to the internet while others vanish altogether. Readers' attention (and money) has migrated to the internet, where they are exposed to massive disinformation. The second development is the precarious nature of the work: the word “journalism” is now increasingly synonymous with the word “insecurity”. Journalists work without insurance, without holidays, without fixed contracts and for low fees. Under such conditions, who risks writing texts that attack powerful people? And a third development is important: polarisation. As in the USA, the division of society in Poland is turning into a kind of political duel. Some are for, others against the government - and this also applies to the media landscape. In addition to these three factors which challenge journalistic integrity, there is a fourth one playing out in Poland: political attacks on the free media.  The fight against freedom of information and diversity of opinion is being waged openly. But it differs from the censorship in Belarus or Turkey.  In Poland, state interference comes in the form of lawyers who bombard editorial offices with complaints; police officers who obstruct the coverage of demonstrations; and the boards of directors of state-owned companies who, since the PiS came to power, no longer place advertisements in media critical of the government.

“Solidarity among journalists is the best weapon against the government.”

According to a report by the Polish Journalist Society, the PiS government has taken action against critical journalists and media in 187 cases over the past six years. A good third of these are classified by the society as so-called SLAPP suits, which stands for “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation”. Lawsuits in this category are intended to silence civil society actors. They cost the affected editorial offices a lot of money and nerves. In order to further restrict the freedom of the press, the government also tries to cut off the media from important information. The public administration, in particular, is notorious for ignoring journalists' requests or only issuing information after months of delay. Politicians, on the other hand, often organise so-called press briefings, during which no questions are permitted. The subsequent interviews are only granted to employees of government-friendly media. President Andrzej Duda is well known for this strategy. The picture is completed by the operation of the state television station TVP, which is subsidised from taxpayers' money and continues to call itself a “public broadcaster”, even though it mainly campaigns for the ruling party.

But despite all the threats, there is also hope: trade unions are forming in the media and works councils and editorial offices are joining forces to form investigative research associations. This solidarity among journalists is the best weapon against a government that fears freedom. 

Translated by Bernhard Hartmann and Jess Smee

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