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Poland’s ruling party may clobber independent media

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Oct 10th 2020BERLINEVER SINCE Poland’s Law and Justice party returned to power in 2015 it has chipped away at the independence of the media. Poland’s annual ranking in the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters without Borders, a non-profit group, has grown worse every year, from 18th in 2015 (ahead of Britain, France and America) to 62nd this year (lower than Niger, Georgia and Armenia). It will slide further if the government carries out its latest plans to “repolonise” the country’s media.For the past few years leaders of Law and Justice, a populist-nationalist party, have talked about two new laws: one to repolonise and another to “deconcentrate” private media firms. Neither has passed. But after the party lost ground in a general election last October and then won July’s

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EVER SINCE Poland’s Law and Justice party returned to power in 2015 it has chipped away at the independence of the media. Poland’s annual ranking in the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters without Borders, a non-profit group, has grown worse every year, from 18th in 2015 (ahead of Britain, France and America) to 62nd this year (lower than Niger, Georgia and Armenia). It will slide further if the government carries out its latest plans to “repolonise” the country’s media.

For the past few years leaders of Law and Justice, a populist-nationalist party, have talked about two new laws: one to repolonise and another to “deconcentrate” private media firms. Neither has passed. But after the party lost ground in a general election last October and then won July’s presidential election only narrowly, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the party boss who has now emerged from the shadows to take up the role of deputy prime minister, seems determined to push them through. In a recent interview Mr Kaczynski said he wanted to limit foreign investors to a stake of no more than 30% in Polish media, while deconcentration would limit the number of outlets that any one media group can own. Repolonisation, Mr Kaczynski said, would “ensure that there are more media outlets that present the world more truthfully”. The opposition fears the opposite is more likely.

Soon after coming to power, Law and Justice tightened the government’s grip on the state television network TVP, the national news agency PAP and Polish Radio. These “national media” now disgorge ruling-party propaganda—and as a result have lost some of their audience, especially city-dwellers and the young. During the recent election campaign TVP openly supported the Law and Justice-backed incumbent, Andrej Duda, and threw in a dollop of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, too. (It said that if the opposition candidate won, he would cut welfare benefits for Polish families and give the money to Jews.)

Taking its cue from Hungary’s illiberal rulers, Law and Justice is now eyeing private media outfits, such as Fakt, a popular tabloid owned by Ringier Axel Springer, a German-American-Swiss group, and TVN, a television network owned by Discovery, an American firm. Another target is Gazeta Wyborcza, the most popular broadsheet, which is co-owned by Agora, a Polish group, and two American firms. The ruling party is squeezing Gazeta by blocking state-controlled businesses from advertising in it. Private firms that want to do business with the state think twice as well.

Hardly any big media company needs “deconcentrating”, as the market is already fragmented, says Adam Szynol of the University of Wroclaw. One exception is regional dailies: 20 out of 24 of them are owned by the Verlagsgruppe Passau (VGP), a German publishing group. Though most of these papers have a relatively small circulation, they are important for the ruling party because their readers tend to be in rural, very Catholic parts of Poland, its core constituency. As The Economist went to press, VGP was said to be in talks with Orlen, the state-owned petrol retailer, about the sale of Polska Press, its Polish arm.

Treating German and American investors shabbily could backfire. That is why Boguslaw Charbota, editor-in-chief of Rzeczpospolita, a leading daily, says he is not too pessimistic. The government is staunchly pro-American, he argues, and the American ambassador in Warsaw has already signalled that any limits on American investment in Poland will not go down well in Washington.

Others are more alarmed. They fear that the two bills could become law within weeks. They would make it hard or impossible for foreign media investors to do more business in Poland and may even force some sales. And that would actually concentrate Polish media—under the control of the Law and Justice party.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline "The Hungarian model"

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