Freedom House Report: Media in Poland dependent on Kaczynski
A few months ago, prominent American think-tank Freedom House published its yearly report Freedom in the World 2020: A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy which analyses the level of democratisation across over 210 countries around the globe. One of its leading indicators measures freedom of the media and press. Not surprisingly, the Polish media has been described as having a measure of independence but is strictly controlled by the leading political power - The Law and Justice Party led by conservative leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
According to Freedom House, the independence of the media in Poland is still far from ideal. Poland scored three out of four where four indicates a country with very high levels of press freedom and media independence. Poland’s middle-ranking score is not great, and could be better - so how can we speak about the independence of the Polish media?
Before 2015 with the victory of Kaczynski's Law and Justice party gaining an overwhelming victory in 2015 parliamentary elections, the Polish media had fairly pluralist tendencies. Domestic media was led by American and German media consortiums that kept neo-liberal trends above the government’s own propaganda outlets, and they were financially independent of the government. Following the 2015 elections, this has changed significantly.
From this point, Kaczynski’s government accused pro-liberal TVN television channel of being “foreign” capital investment and promoting Western social views that would destroy Polish traditional conservative values, such as family values and catholic roots which are very close to many Poles’ hearts.
In elections since 2015, state-owned media channels such as TVP (Polish Television) reserved an overwhelming majority of TV slots to promote candidates from the governing party, while reducing TV slots for the opposition to a minimum. This forced the opposition to either lose out or create their own media channels to maintain their independence. Investigative journalist websites such as ‘OKO.press’ started to track the government's virtual coup d’etat, and some opposition-supporting journalists were no longer afraid of speaking loudly about Kaczynski’s scandals and restrictions on freedom of the press.
The state-owned media rapidly became the main force to promote the government’s viewpoint, effectively blocking voices other than Kaczynski’s opinions. Anti-government protests or non-governmental organisations activities have been largely barred from entering the media space. Kaczynski’s government did not trust the news that was coming from any different source than state-owned TVP and did everything to keep the government's status quo. The news filtration and absorption, a society’s digitalisation and news perceptions - all had to be held in a Law and Justice Party’s hands.
The 2019 Elections to the European Parliament (EP) reflected a near-total lack of media plurality due to TV time slot manipulation with almost 100% of prime-time television slots being reserved for Law and Justice. Independent investigative journalism website OKO Press estimated that in Q2 2018, the government secured over two times more media slots on TVP, a state-owned television channel than all oppositional parties combined. In May 2018, the newly formed United Right coalition led by Kaczynski was aired for over 64 hours, while its parliamentary opponents (Civic Platform Party, Modern and Polish People’s Party) were given only 10 hours. The international OBWE press watchdog and observers monitoring the fairness of the Polish elections noticed that the EP elections were running very smoothly but, they were disturbed by a narrative of intolerance and bias in the media.
Law and Justice’s monopoly over print and online media channels has negatively impacted the advertising market, particularly independent publishers that heavily rely on advertising income. Since 2015, there is a noticeable trend for the advertising industry to support Kaczynski’s party. As a result, independent publishers that are not afraid to represent opposing views have been losing a source of income, unable to obtain funding from advertising or editorials. Independent news became ‘not good enough’ to be able to break through the "news wall" monopolised by news streams only sympathetic towards those in power.
This significant reduction in the variety of voices in the Polish media effectively ended voices for those who spoke against the states. These independent views deviated too much from Law and Justice’s pro-family, nationalist and anti-consumerist values. Foreign media concerns, including the American media group Scripps Networks Interactive/TVN Group, were accused of bringing economically disastrous “foreign” capital and promoting liberal Western values considered to be a threat to the state's pro-family, deeply catholic values.
Kaczynski's government was effectively trying to call this strategy i.e. a ‘polishisation’ of the Polish media space, while it has deterred opposition media from the debate. Independent foreign media companies, such as TVN, were not able to break into this polish media bubble. On 6th March 2020, President Andrzej Duda signed an amendment to the Act on Radio and Television, in which state-owned were able to receive financial support of up to 2 billion zlotys in theory for increasing spendings on the Polish media but in reality for supporting the governmental agenda. The amended Act clearly stated that state-owned TVP and Polish Radio could receive around 10 billion zlotys by 2024. This considerable amount of money helps keep the state media complacent. Since 2015, the media landscape in Poland has been divided between state propaganda and independent media. While the first is flourishing under the umbrella of Kaczynski’s patriarchy, the latter struggled to overcome structural barriers put in place. First, because they present different views to those of the authorities and secondly because they violated the status quo of supporting the government by providing anti-state news.
Dwelling on to what extent this situation will change in the near term does not make much sense now. However, it’s almost sure that OSCE election watchdogs will not change much when the state’s authority dictates to the media what and how to write. One thing is almost certain - OSCE experts have already seen a similar media environment under neighbouring countries such as Russia or Belarus. Only a change of power will result in a significant change.