For 30 years, Poland’s Radio ZET has served its audience a mix of music, current affairs and occasional humour. But Poles tuning into the station on February 10 were met with something rather different. Instead of normal programming, a terse message, played on a loop, informed listeners that Poland’s government wanted to “destroy the independent media”.

“We are protesting so that you can convince yourselves what Poland will look like without independent media,” the message ran. “We apologise to you, our listeners and business partners, for the change to today’s schedule. But we have no choice.”

Radio ZET was not alone. For 24 hours, much of Poland’s private media united in protest against a plan to impose a tax on advertising revenues, which they see as a serious — and targeted — threat to independent journalism. Broadcasters replaced TV shows with black screens with the message “This is where your favourite programme was supposed to be”; internet portals blocked access to articles; and 43 media groups signed an open letter branding the plan “extortion”. They warned that its introduction would lead to the “weakening, or even liquidation” of some Polish media companies, whose budgets have already been shredded by the coronavirus pandemic.

Newspaper headlines in Warsaw read ‘Media without choice’ as media companies protest against a plan to tax advertising revenues, which they see as a threat to independent journalism © Albert Zawada/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Politicians from Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) say the levy — in the range of 2 to 15 per cent, depending on the size of advertising revenues, the type of media and the product advertised — is meant to help the country’s health system recover from the pandemic. They initially dismissed the protests as a self-serving move by companies that pay too little tax. But as criticism of the plan began to spread, with both PiS’s junior coalition partner and several US politicians expressing concerns, officials changed tack and said parts of it would be amended. The levy would not, they insisted, target small, local Polish players, but instead rein in “international giants”. 

Few media executives, however, think that the battle is over. Many see the proposed tax as the latest in a series of steps by PiS to curb independent journalism. These include the capture of the state broadcaster, and a squeeze on advertising by state bodies in publications that do not toe the government line. For now, Poland has a strong independent media market, but the trends are worrying: since PiS took office in 2015, the country has tumbled from 18th to 62nd place in the World Press Freedom Index — below Niger and Armenia.

Bar chart of Estimates (zloty, millions) showing Advertising expenditure by Poland's state-owned companies has surged

Some Polish journalists fear that the EU’s fifth biggest state could end up following a similar path to Hungary, where Viktor Orban’s government has suffocated much of the country’s independent media.

Poland has been one of the EU’s big success stories over the past three decades, but the stand-off over private media is the latest in a series of disputes that have put it at the centre of a contest about Europe’s political and cultural values.

The renewed focus by PiS on the media follows a bitterly contested overhaul of the judiciary which critics say threatens the rule of law in Poland, as well as a fierce debate over abortion after a controversial court ruling that all but outlawed terminations.

Brussels, which has spent the last four years locked in a battle with both Poland and Hungary over the rule of law, has made it clear it is following the proposed levy closely. But while some European politicians have warned against creeping authoritarianism, the EU remains deeply divided over how to defend what it sees as its core ideals in member states.

Protesters with signs reading ‘2 billions of contempt’ gathered before Poland’s state TVP building in the country’s capital last week © Czarek Sokolowski/AP

Says one senior Polish media executive: “What we really want is to send a signal both to the Polish public, but also internationally, that this is a serious matter . . . that the independence of the media, and free speech in Poland, is really under threat.”

Opposition from US

Since sweeping to power, PiS, a conservative-nationalist group with strong ties to Poland’s influential Catholic Church, has made no secret of the fact that it believes Poland’s media is in need of an overhaul. Led by veteran firebrand Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the party has long argued that foreign groups, such as the Swiss-German Ringier Axel Springer or the US’s Discovery, own too much of Poland’s media, and that it is biased against conservatives.

Charts showing media consumption in Poland. Percentage of people consuming news via online, TV, radio and print in the past week.

“We have to have our own media. In our country, non-Polish media should be an exception,” Kaczynski, now deputy prime minister, said in an interview with wPolsce.pl last month. “Maybe that is not easy, and it is certainly not a short path, but it is the only way to defend our freedom, our sovereignty.”

Over the past five years, PiS and its allies have frequently raised the prospect of passing legislation to redraw the media landscape, either by imposing limits on foreign ownership, or by restricting the market share that can be owned by a single group. But, amid disagreements within the ruling camp, no legislation has yet been put forward.

One problem is that it would be hard to reconcile such legislation with EU law. Another is that the US — PiS’s most important international ally — has long made clear that it would fiercely oppose any moves that damage US-owned groups, including Discovery’s TVN, Poland’s largest independent broadcaster, and PiS’s bete noire.

The fierce media debate follows a controversial court ruling outlawing abortion last year. This sign reads: ‘Free media, free courts, free uteruses’

In the absence of legislation, PiS politicians have urged state-controlled companies to buy up foreign-owned Polish media. In December, PKN Orlen struck a deal to buy Polska Press from Germany’s Verlagsgruppe Passau, in a move that will give the state-owned oil refiner, run by a close ally of PiS, control over 20 of Poland’s 24 regional newspapers, and almost 120 local weeklies.

Orlen said at the time that the deal would strengthen its “retail sales, including non-fuel sales”, and that access to Polska Press’s 17.4m users would help it improve its big data tools and win new clients. The oil refiner also insisted it would not interfere in newsrooms, and compared the transaction to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s purchase of the Washington Post in 2013.

However, the deal has provoked consternation among journalists at Polska Press’s titles. “The mood is lousy,” says Krzysztof Zyzik, editor-in-chief of NTO, a regional news group from Opole in southern Poland, adding that two of his 20 staff have left since the deal was announced. 

In an open letter to Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki, right, more than 40 news group criticised the proposed tax, which ranges from 2-15% of advertising revenues. The government has said it will amend the legislation © Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty

In Zyzik’s 27 years at NTO, it has been through Norwegian, British and German ownership. But this change-of-hands, he says, feels different — and more akin to Gazprom’s purchase of Russian media groups for Vladimir Putin, than to Bezos’s purchase of the Washington Post. “This is the first time in the history of our title where we feel that we are at a turning point,” he says. “And of course on top of this, there are other things linked to the reduction of journalistic freedom, like [the advertising tax]. These are all steps on the road to the Orbanisation of the Polish media.”

‘Making politics’

Politicians from the ruling camp dispute this. Andrzej Duda, Poland’s president and a close ally of PiS, says Orlen’s purchase of Polska Press was a “business transaction carried out in compliance with all legally required procedures”.

“The one who buys is the one who can afford it. It’s as simple as that,” he says, arguing that Poland’s disrupted 20th century history meant that private Polish groups had simply not had time to build up the capital to complete such deals.

A screen shows the special message ‘Media without a choice’ of Polish Onet web portal in place of its regular content © Leszek Szymanski/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“As long as we as Poles are arguing, and it is us who have influence over the media and journalists, and those are our internal disputes in which no one is intervening, then everything is fine,” he says. “However, if it turns out that certain political processes are happening via the activities of the media which are in the hands of foreign capital, then there is a problem.”

Part of the reason that Orlen’s takeover of Polska Press provokes such concern among journalists is the state of Poland’s state media. To a greater or lesser extent, Polish governments of all stripes have sought to exert influence over the state broadcaster TVP. But critics say PiS has gone far further than anyone else.

“I wouldn’t paint a beautiful picture of the pre-2015 media landscape,” says Marek Tejchman, deputy editor of Dziennik Gazeta Prawna. “Previously you could argue that [some coverage at state media] was biased, that some information was too subjective. But right now, their main purpose is not producing news any more, but rather making politics, and that’s the biggest difference.”

Protesters call for ‘free media’. Poland has tumbled from 18th to 62nd place in the World Press Freedom Index, below Niger and Armenia, in the past five years © Czarek Sokolowski/AP

This politics takes various forms. When thousands of women joined anti-government protests last year following a court ruling that all but outlawed abortion, a programme on state TV recalled that in medieval times, women in one part of Poland who caused an argument in public had to walk around the main town square with a stone on their neck.

“Who knows whether similar rules would not be worth introducing in the public life of today?” the narrator mused. A few months earlier, a scandal erupted after a state-controlled music station allegedly censored a song critical of Kaczynski.

The state broadcaster’s bias was also on display during last year’s presidential election, when TVP mixed unremittingly positive coverage of Duda with relentless attacks on his liberal challenger Rafal Trzaskowski. In a report on the vote, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the election-monitoring arm of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said TVP had “acted as a campaign vehicle for the incumbent and frequently portrayed his main challenger as a threat to Polish values and national interest” and “failed in its legal duty to provide balanced and impartial coverage”. Some reporting, it added, “was charged with xenophobic and anti-Semitic undertones”.

“If you watch Wiadomosci [the main evening news programme on TVP1] it is not news . . . It just shows that PiS is the best and the opposition is all bad,” says Mariusz Kowalewski, a journalist with TVP from 2016 to 2019. “In those three years, I saw the situation getting more radical. Suddenly only commentators from one political side could appear, from rightwing media like Gazeta Polska or Do Rzeczy. Others weren’t invited. It was information passed on by word of mouth by directors, who can be invited and who can’t.”

Squeeze on independents

As Poland’s government has captured the state media, state-controlled companies have increasingly diverted their advertising spending to media that toe the government line. A report published this month by Tadeusz Kowalski, a professor at the University of Warsaw, found that advertising by state-owned companies in a host of pro-government media outlets, including Sieci, Do Rzeczy and Gazeta Polska, had surged since PiS came to power in 2015. By contrast liberal titles, such as Polityka and Newsweek, received no advertising at all from state-owned companies last year, even though both have a circulation of more than double Sieci, Do Rzeczy or Gazeta Polska.

Advertising by state-owned companies in pro-government media outlets, such as Gazeta Polska, has surged since PiS came to power in 2015 © Piotr Lapinski/NurPhoto/Getty

“The structure of total spending [by state-owned companies] shows a weak correlation between the level of advertising expenditure and the market position of the medium,” Kowalski concluded.

The International Press Institute, a Vienna-based media watchdog, is blunter. “State resources . . . continue to be weaponised to starve certain media of public advertising revenue,” it wrote in a recent report. “Since 2015, state institutions and state-owned and controlled companies stacked with PiS loyalists have ceased to subscribe to or place advertising in independent media, cutting off an important source of funding in a policy of economic strangulation. Though politicisation of state advertising is nothing new in Poland, it has reached new levels under PiS.”

Media groups are watching closely to see how the battle over the advertising tax and the independence of Polish media play out. Despite the pressures, some journalists remain relatively sanguine about the sector’s prospects. Boguslaw Chrabota, editor of the centrist newspaper Rzeczpospolita, says that 80 per cent of Poland’s private media took part in last week’s protest, and that this solidarity, the presence of foreign investors in the market and the background of senior journalists in battling communist authorities, will help the industry survive the current squalls.

Polish officials insist the levy would not target small, local Polish players, but instead rein in ‘international giants’ © Omar Marques/Getty

“If we were strong enough to fight for freedom of the press under communism, we can survive today. So that is why I am optimistic. The massive investment, the solid titles, the prestige [and] solidarity among journalists mean that it is very hard to break us down. They can hurt us with some activities, such as using fiscal policies, but to break us down is really difficult,” he says, adding that fears that the private media in Poland suffer a similar fate to their counterparts in Hungary are misplaced. “There is no Budapest here in Warsaw.”

Others, however, are less bullish, and fear their ability to work freely could yet come under threat. “Looking at all the actions of these authorities towards the free media, I am convinced that there is an attempt to suppress free speech and democratic holding to account [of the government],” says NTO’s Zyzik, who will assess how Orlen’s ownership of Polska Press pans out.

“I am doing my job, and waiting for developments. But I am ready to resign if I feel that free journalism cannot be done under our new owner,” he says.

Additional reporting by Agata Majos in Warsaw

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