Media Freedom in Poland: Critical journalists face oppression and obstruction

“The time for euphemisms is over,” Adam Michnik, an icon of the opposition in the 1970s and 80s, wrote to MEPs on March 10. The letter appeared in Gazeta Wyborcza — Poland’s largest newspaper, of which Michnik is editor-in-chief — and was republished by other European media outlets. The date of Michnik’s letter is not accidental — it appears on the day of the MEPs’ debate on the independence of the media in Poland, Hungary and Slovenia. 

The letter itself is a dramatic appeal, in which Michnik calls for the defence of media independence in Poland.  What is happening in Central Europe that is making journalists here ring the alarm? The Hungarian media is already almost entirely under the control of oligarchs loyal to Viktor Orbán. Small, investigative journalistic organisations — like or — are operating as the last outposts of freedom of speech, but they function as if under wartime conditions, under constant fire from the government. A similar situation is faced by journalists in Slovenia. 

Poland, under the right-wing Law and Justice party (which has been in power since 2015) is boldly following the path set by Viktor Orbán. The Polish government financially seizes or seeks out critical media outlets. Public radio and television, which are subordinate to the ruling party, broadcast pro-government propaganda, explaining that this is “the will of the people”. Authorities have dismissed hundreds of journalists from the public media, and the only criteria is that the people who were kicked out had refused to serve as the wheels in the propaganda machine. Since the Law and Justice government came to power, Poland has fallen every year in the freedom of speech rankings.

Adam Michnik, who spent six years in communist prisons, understands as well as anyone what happens to journalism and the media when a country is ruled by an authoritarian regime. In a letter to parliamentarians in Brussels, he writes that Poland is witnessing a “creeping coup d’état”: the rule of law is being transformed into a Church-party coalition state. And it is not only about journalism and journalists. “The Constitutional Tribunal, the prosecutor’s office, the police, the special services have become the services of one party with the misleading name Law and Justice,” writes the head of Gazeta Wyborcza. He also points out that public media have been fully appropriated and turned into a propaganda machine. “Independent media are treated as the enemy and attacked with the hatred we know from some speeches of former US President Donald Trump. We are treated as the enemy because we are independent and have the courage to write the truth,” writes Michnik.   

Access to reliable and accurate information, especially during a pandemic, is more necessary than ever, and state institutions should ensure that journalists have unfettered access to information. But today, being an independent journalist in Central Europe is a challenge. It involves — in addition to the increasing financial instability of reporters — exposing oneself to oppression, secret service surveillance and violence by police during demonstrations. It is about being ignored by party officials and activists who throw questions from the media like rubbish into a bin. There are fewer and fewer independent journalists who are critical of the authorities and who have not yet been driven out of their jobs by this daily oppression and obstruction. In Poland, a few weeks ago, the oil company ruled by the Law and Justice party bought up a network of local newspapers, thanks to which it can reach 17 million citizens with governmental propaganda. To observers in Poland and Hungary, the associations with Gazprom and Putin’s Russia’s appropriation of the media come to mind immediately.   

But it is not only journalists who are at stake here. As Michnik writes, the authorities in Poland restrict the freedom of scientific research, want to change school textbooks, use hate speech, promote xenophobia and homophobia, restrict freedom of access to public information, and also make the work of NGOs difficult. The total ban on abortion, passed in autumn 2020, has brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets, yet their protests remain without any reaction from the authorities. Poland, a European Union country of 38 million people, is slipping into a religious state in which the Catholic Church and the ruling party dictate the new social order.     

The government’s latest trick is to demand a tax on advertising — designed to kill off the independent media that rely on advertising revenue. The design of the new tax means that the government will decide which media outlets survive. The obedient ones will be fed from a government fund — this system already works effectively in Hungary. 

On February 10, 2021, the Polish media protested — they showed how Poland could look without freedom of speech. Private radio stations and TV stations stopped broadcasting, newspapers printed black pages — pages of mourning printed with the text “Media without choice”. The action showed that without a choice of access to the media, society will be deprived of choice too. 

The Law and Justice party dreams of a Poland without the eyes and ears of critical journalists who control the authorities.  Media that are rebellious towards the authorities, burdened with a new tax, and ignored on the advertising market, are suppose to collapse and be bought up by new owners who are dependent on the authorities — just like in Orban’s Hungary.  

Freedom of speech is the foundation of democracy. “Media without choice” means that Poland, Slovenia or Hungary without democracy, would be unworthy of membership in the European Union. That is why, Michnik writes, by defending European freedom in Poland, MEPs will, in fact, be defending the EU. The time for euphemisms is over.