A good chance to fight (PiS) propaganda in Poland

Woijciech Cieśla /
July 2017, Warsaw, Plac Krasinskich (Krasinskis Square): A protest taking place after the Polish Parliament passed a bill giving the government the power to force all Supreme Court judges into retirement

I have rarely read eastern European news without feeling bored or frustrated – it’s all too similar and repetitive. But for the last two years, since the election won by populist, right wing Law and Justice party (PiS), the news from Poland rings a new tone.

There are more stories about conflict politics with the country’s important neighbors, while in parallel, the mainstream media writes about alliances with distant players for whom Poland remains – for geographical and economic reasons – a subordinate partner.

The politics of Poland’s ruling party nowadays promote allies as unpredictable as Trump; as politically marginal as Orbán, and as troublesome as Erdoğan.

A “good change” is the slogan that brought the “Law and Justice” party (PiS) to power in the 2015 elections. PiS won on popular promises. They have pledged to crack down on banks, lower the retirement age and give massive monthly cash handouts to parents for each child.

Over the last two years, the government has walked their talk quite a bit: the monthly child allowance was raised (currently PLN 500 / EUR 113 per child); povertyin Poland dropped by over 20 percent. As a result, polls show 42% of the population supports them

But the ruling party’s “good change” vision is somehow twisted when applied to foreign policy. Although party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s behavior is not Orbánesque (yet), it has provoked tensions between Poland and the European Union under a national pride blazon. For example, Poland’s and Hungary’s opposition to a refugee relocation plan set them on a collision course with the idea of greater cooperation among some of EU’s members to help solve a humanitarian crisis.

Politically, too, PiS seem determined to make Poland’s life harder. The party revived the issue of war reparations, after decades of hard work to improve relations with Germany. This may very well escalate tensions between the two countries.

Although Law and Justice is not officially a Eurosceptic party planning to withdraw Poland from the Union, it sees the country in a deluded concert of superpowers that are dealing the cards for weaker states.

Moreover, in October, the Turkish president chose Poland for his first official visit to the EU after the coup d’etat against him in Turkey. Following Trump’s visit in July, PiS hailed Erdoğan’s as another great success of Polish diplomacy, proving “Poland’s significance in the world”.

During Erdoğan’s visit, Polish president Andrzej Duda made an astounding declaration, claiming that Poland “has always supported and will support Turkey’s efforts to join the EU”, even when Erdogan is seen as a politician shifting towards a dictatorial approach to ruling.

But there’s yet a darker turn. Sometimes, when they open their mouths, Poland’s ruling party MPs resemble Russia’s Putin. In a PiS dialect they lable spontaneous street protests as “organized attempt[s] to overthrow power”; NGOs become “agents of foreign influence”; and Western Europe is “degenerate and culturally alien”.

Did Vladimir Putin sign off his anti-Western publicity copyrights to PiS? Thislanguage is untaxed plagiarism from Putin’s Russian propaganda manual. Presenting civic protests as an organized attempt to overthrow “legitimate authority” through a well-organized, hostile group is baseline Putin. In the narrow minds of propagandists, there are no spontaneous riots criticising authorities, only acts of hostile forces, intelligence services and all-powerful billionaires, trying to destabilise a country.

So, welcome to “good change” Poland!

In the narrative about street protests this summer, media supportive of PiS drew up a list of involved NGOs and claimed that foreign-backed third sector organisations fuel riots, plotting to overthrow the Polish government. Public television experts, like Russian television experts at the time of Maidan in Ukraine, were outraged by the party’s “evidence” that the protests were not spontaneous but coordinated from abroad.

Just to remind you: after a wave of protests in Russia in 2002, Putin’s regime blamed NGOs for coordinating and fuelling protests. The PiS point of view on the third sector is similar.

The common denominator of the anti-not-for-profit sector propaganda in Poland and in Russia is George Soros – billionaire known for financing numerous NGOs in ex-communist Europe.

The purpose of this propaganda is shared: subordinating the third sector to power.

For now, PiS is softer than Putin: it doesn’t want to ban anything, they only talk about “order” and the necessary “pluralization” of the third sector. But the idea of banning foreign finances aiding the Polish third sector means there would be a tighter control over NGOs’ budgets.

The PiS discourse resembles Kremlin’s on European and cultural issues. Listen to PiS’ reps recent statements. Their main point of critical reference is not Russia, a neighbour that terrified Poles through an extra-territorial push into Ukraine, Crimea, and the Baltic Sea. No. PiS has a problem with liberal Western Europe, which they see as helpless in the face of Islamic terrorism, weakened by radical Islam. For the ideologists of „good change”, Poland – because of its Catholicism – is the island of Latin civilization in a sea of Western secular civilization of death. And the party suggests a solution to preserving this cultural distinction: the subordination of all, including the courts and the free press, to centres of power.

The proposed “good change” in Poland has affected media and journalists. The level of public debate in Poland has become dangerously low, and the language of politics is increasingly brutalized by politicians.

The language of the leading party, Law and Justice (PiS) and its media in the face of social protests, civil liberties, is transforming Poland (in a symbolic sphere) into the westernmost flank of Russian power influence. This, in itself, is a paradox – the party had initially been seen as Russophobe.

The liberal side of the public dispute also uses propaganda, also brutal, only equipped with counter-arguments. And it does not justify enough the fact that the Polish national broadcaster furthers the political agenda that allows PiS to impose its editorial line and focus. The media is fixated on the current policy. There is no space for explaining complex European affairs, no space for investigative journalism or difficult topics.

What to do about it?

Journalists who do not want to engage in ad-hoc political fights are increasingly open to independent projects, organising themselves as non-for-profits or independent and – what’s quite promising – driven by a passion for journalism.

Only in the last year, Poland saw the launch of the oko.press and Outriders independent news services, as well as the Foundation of Reporters – of which I am a co-founder. In the face of social protests, civil liberties, new and the independent media initiatives produce investigative journalism and fact-checking to preserve freedom of speech and secure availability of critical information in Poland.

And here you have another paradox: the business of apolitical assumption puts those initiatives under the surveillance of power – because they are part of the NGOs sector, because they don’t surrender their independence to the centre of political power, because they cannot be blackmailed economically (as is happening with large media owners via advertisement budgets).

Polish journalists also have to deal with the fact that investigative journalism is at real risk. Reporters and newsrooms lack resources, clickbait wins over quality content, and the political and business climate is also becoming unsupportive.

When journalist Tomasz Piątek published this year a book on the Polish defence minister’s associates’ alleged network of questionable Russian contacts, the ministry asked the military department of Poland’s National Prosecutor’s Office to investigate Piątek for “violence or illegal threats” and “public insults” against a constitutional authority of the Republic of Poland”. The ministry took a martial approach towards Piątek, a civilian and a journalist.

The freedom of the press has begun to suffer in countries that once seemed to be young and growing or well-established democracies. Therefore, new independent models are needed to carry forward journalism in the public interest.

According to Kamil Dąbrowa, former program director for Polish Radio 1, after just a month or two under a new government, his radio hosts and producers suddenly started receiving phone calls from government officials. The authorities would ask questions about content and make comments on what the stations were reporting about, trying to influence what went on air.

PiS has ousted broadcast outlets executives and replaced them with ‘allies’, turning media into “propaganda outlets”.

Towarzystwo Dziennikarskie, a journalists’ association, is monitoring the situation at public TV and the state-controlled Polish Radio. The association’s website lists the journalists or editorial staff who have either been sacked or have quit since 2015 general election. The website now lists 228, and that number is expected to rise. Many journalists have called this an unprecedented purge of newsrooms.

As government’s grip on the media in the region tightens by dozens of clear examples of bias and news manipulation, it becomes all the more important for journalists to remain independent, well-trained and vigilant. If reporters from various media organizations and across the region join efforts, the press will serve our societies better.

News about Eastern Europe may ring of frustration, but they do not bore, that’s for sure. Unlike modern Russia, Poland still exists within the framework of democracy – although its government does much to push the country out of this camp.

Polish President Duda posing for pictures with Turkey’s Erdogan will not add to a European perception of Poland. Journalists working together might do.

The conscious activity of reporters who organize themselves as an alternative to the Polish-Polish war and pushy propaganda may be a recipe to avoid a catastrophe.