Library

Poland: MFRR reasserts recommendations for democratic reform for press…

Poland: MFRR reasserts recommendations for democratic reform for press freedom and public media

The undersigned partner organisations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today renew their call for democratic and comprehensive reform to Poland’s public broadcasters which creates systematic safeguards to limit the ability of all governments, future and present, to meddle in editorial or institutional independence of the country’s public media.

The MFRR coalition also reaffirms the set of recommendations for steps that can be taken by the new coalition government to improve the wider situation for media freedom and independent journalism in Poland. These recommendations were jointly developed following a recent mission of the MFRR to Warsaw ahead of the election.

 

Our organisations jointly urge the new Civic Platform-led government to heed the concerns and recommendations of media freedom organisations. We call on political leaders to ensure that all reforms to the media space in Poland – both underway and planned – adhere to democratic values and follow the rule of law.

 

The call comes amidst an ongoing battle over the future of public broadcaster TVP and Polish Radio. Since coming to power, the new government abruptly dismissed the supervisory bodies of TVP and national news agency PAP and put the public media into liquidation, an unprecedented move which uses a legal loophole to allow the government to continue financing the broadcaster while also making internal changes.

 

While the new administration has defended the moves as necessary to dismantle the propaganda output of TVP, the former ruling party has criticized the changes as undemocratic and aimed at cementing a new form of political control over the channels.

 

While the MFRR continues to support much needed reforms by the new coalition government to restore the impartiality, reliability and professionalism of public media in Poland, the means used to do so must be democratic, legal and truly aimed at increasing pluralistic and balanced coverage, prioritizing the public interest over any one political interest.

 

With a new law on public service media reportedly being developed by the coalition parties, our organizations also call on the new government to conduct a thorough consultative process on any proposed legislative changes, urge that that the concerns of the media community are heeded, and stress that reforms are fully in line with the principles outlined in the European Commission’s European Media Freedom Act (EMFA), particularly regarding guarantees for political independence.

 

Crucially, any reforms by the new government must not perpetuate the cycle of capture and control that was taken to extremes by the Law and Justice (PiS) party during its years in power and ensure that deep structural changes to the management and regulation of TVP and Polish Radio are undertaken which will put an end to repeated periods of politicization after elections.

 

Given the importance of regulation of public media in Poland, the new administration must address the National Media Council (NMC), which has been identified as a key instrument created by PiS to wield greater control over TVP. The NMC remains an unconstitutional body dominated by PiS appointees and should be addressed under relevant law.

 

Democratic changes to address the ongoing crisis at public media in Poland are possible, but must be made with restraint and the utmost respect for the rule of law and democracy. The MFRR therefore reasserts the recommendations regarding the future of the public media that were made jointly by our organisations in September 2023 ahead of the election and calls on the new government to carefully consider and implement them. The full MFRR mission report can be read here.

 

Recommendations

Public service media

  • Public broadcasting requires a root and branch reform of both the governance structures and financing mechanism to guarantee political independence and the fulfilling of the public service remit. In particular:
  • The appointment process for management and governing bodies must be depoliticised with candidates appointed through transparent, open, and non-discriminatory procedures on the basis of their professional skills and experience with guarantees of political neutrality.
  • PSM funding must be conducted through arms-length decision making ideally through a form of TV licensing to ensure that the funds are free of political interference. Any government supplementary allocation should be taken in transparent decision making, that guarantees stable long-term financing, adequate to fulfil the public service mission.

———

The MFRR mission made further recommendations on wider improvements to the press freedom landscape in Poland.

Media regulation

Media regulators must be able to operate fully independent of government in line with Article 30 of the EU’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive that demands regulators are legally distinct from government and functionally independent of their respective government. Reform of KRRiT should include:

  • Depoliticising the appointments process to ensure candidates are appointed through transparent, open, and non-discriminatory procedures on the basis of their professional skills and experience with explicit guarantees of political neutrality.
  • Ensuring all processes with respect to licensing and investigations into breaches of the code are subject to clear and transparent procedures and collegiate decision making. Failure to meet those procedures, such as undue delays in licensing decisions, or manifestly politicized investigations, must have clear consequences for those responsible with commensurate compensation provided to the broadcaster affected.
  • All decisions must be duly justified in line with the regulatory powers of the office and broadcast code.
  • All investigations into alleged breaches of the broadcast code must be conducted by the full board and not placed in the hands of the Chair alone. Investigations should follow due process allowing the accused to present its arguments. Decisions should be accompanied by detailed justifications. There should be an appeals process for condemned media including the option to revisit rulings in the courts in line with European standards of free expression.
  • Information should be publicly available on the handling of all complaints received with detailed reports issued at least annually on all decisions with due justification.

 

Media pluralism

Media pluralism must be ensured through a diverse range of media and owners that operate independently of the state with strong guarantees of editorial independence. Recommended measures include:

  • PKN Orlen should be required to immediately divest its media investments and state-controlled companies, outside of the public media framework, should be barred from owning media.
  • A media plurality test should be developed to measure the impact of transfers of ownership in the media market on pluralism and to guarantee media pluralism.
  • The government must guarantee a level economic playing field for all media and end practices that discriminate against, and create a negative investment climate for, private media operating independent of government.
  • Media should guarantee minimum levels of editorial independence and ethical standards that protect the newsroom from external interference and ensure journalistic integrity.

 

State support to media

  • The discriminatory use of state resources to manipulate the media market must end.
  • Public funds and state advertising must be distributed according to transparent, objective, proportionate, and non-discriminatory criteria through open, proportionate, and non-discriminatory procedures.
  • Annual reports should be issued on the distribution of all state advertising to media. This should include details of revenue from contracts with state bodies received by companies that belong to the same business grouping as media companies.
  • The awarding of all public contracts to companies whose beneficial owners also own media must be subject to particularly careful scrutiny and safeguards to ensure that the awarding of such contracts are not used to influence editorial content of those media.

 

Vexatious lawsuits

  • The judicial appointment procedure must be transparent and independent in practice and in line with European norms and standards.
  • The judiciary must be properly trained on the use of strategic lawsuits and mechanisms should be put in place allowing for the early dismissal of evidently vexatious cases and a requirement for claimants to cover the cost of proceedings in such instances.
  • Defamation must be decriminalized and become a matter for civil law only.
  • The government must end the sponsoring of self evidently vexatious lawsuits taken against media or other actors, for legitimate criticism and free expression.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

MFRR 3 consortium logos
Leader of Civic Platform (PO) and Poland Prime Minister Donald Tusk speaks during a rally on the 'Nowy Targ' square in Wroclaw, Poland, 24 June 2023. EPA-EFE/Tomasz Golla Library

Poland: Upheaval at Polish public broadcaster must lead to…

Upheaval at Polish public broadcaster must lead to comprehensive reform to restore and safeguard independence

Sudden dismissal of supervisory boards risks setting dangerous precedent. The new Polish government’s abrupt dismissal of the supervisory bodies of the country’s public television broadcaster TVP and national news agency PAP risks setting an alarming precedent that must be urgently rectified by new rules to permanently protect these institutions’ independence, the International Press Institute (IPI) said today.

The previous Law and Justice (PiS) government had shamelessly turned Poland’s public media into instruments of state propaganda. The new coalition’s goal of ending this situation is therefore unquestionably justified. However, these reform efforts must take care not to perpetuate a cycle of politicization or perceived politicization. The new government must now work to pass comprehensive reform that guarantees the right of Poland’s public media to work freely and shields them from future interference by political parties of all stripes.

On Tuesday, December 19, the new parliament passed a resolution calling for the restoration of “impartiality and reliability of the public media.”

On Wednesday, the minister of culture, Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, announced the appointment  of new supervisory boards for public television, public radio and the news agency PAP, as well as the appointment of new management in the three government-owned companies.

Minutes after the dismissal of the supervisory boards, TVP’s 24-hour news channel TVP Info, was taken off air, while TVP’s Channel One aired no news bulletins throughout the day on Wednesday.

The changes provoked a furious reaction from the outgoing party of Law and Justice (PiS) whose members staged an overnight sit-in on Tuesday in the broadcaster’s headquarters, also  joined by PiS  leader, Jaroslaw Kaczyński.

The new government asserted its right to act on two main grounds: firstly that the establishment of the National Media Council, the supervisory body for public TV and Radio set up by PiS in early 2016, had been ruled unconstitutional in December 2016; and secondly that the ministry of culture, as the sole owner of the public radio and TV, must now take on the NMC responsibilities and exercise the authority to restore impartiality to public media.

During their eight years in government (2015 to 2023) PiS converted the public media into an unapologetically hardline propaganda outfit designed not only to promote government policy but also to aggressively delegitimize its critics and the political opposition.

IPI visited Poland in September as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response mission and concluded that the public media had been fully converted into a propaganda arm of the ruling party. Successive reports of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring of Poland’s elections concluded that PiS “enjoyed clear advantage through its undue influence over the use of state resources and public media” during the 2023 October elections; and that the broadcaster was ‘frequently portraying the [party’s] main challenger as a threat to Polish values and national interests’ in the 2020 Presidential elections.

“While there is no question that the TVP and Polish Radio are both in need of drastic reform, IPI is troubled by the approach adopted that appears to be stretching the rule of law,” said IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen. “While the ultimate aim is unquestionably legitimate, such an act may set a dangerous precedent for every incoming government to use legal loopholes to overturn the actions of the previous government.”

“The government must now ensure that what emerges from the changes is a fully independent public broadcaster that represents the voices and views of all of society without discrimination. The Tusk government must work with journalists groups and media experts from across Poland to establish the necessary legal safeguards that can protect public media in the future from all forms of political interference.”

The Media Freedom Rapid Responses mission report from September 2023 outlines the full range of challenges facing media freedom in Poland including media pluralism, vexatious lawsuits and safety of journalists. We urge the Civic Platform-led government to make media independence and journalists rights a central element of their programme.

This statement by IPI is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries, and Ukraine. The project is co-funded by the European Commission.

IPI as part of MFRR
Library

Poland: Media freedom reform faces obstacles after opposition victory

Poland: Media freedom reform faces obstacles after opposition victory

After coming first in the parliamentary elections on October 15, Poland’s centrist opposition parties, led by Donald Tusk’s Civic Coalition, look set to form a coalition government in the weeks ahead.

After eight years of rule by the hard-right conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, the new government will have a full plate as it sets out to rebuild Poland’s democratic pillars, from the courts to the state-owned media. The change in government could also usher in broader changes to the media landscape.

In the years after PiS came to power in 2015, the media freedom situation in Poland deteriorated sharply amidst an attack on critical and independent media.

The state-owned media was one of the government’s first targets: PiS swiftly pushed through legislation that allowed it to assert control over the country’s public broadcaster and established a National Media Council tasked with appointing the management of state-owned broadcaster TVP, Polish Radio and the PAP news agency.

These efforts to control the media extended to private media outlets too; for example, state-controlled oil company PKN Orlen purchased the country’s largest regional newspaper publisher Polska Press from its German owner in 2021, which resulted in most of the newspapers’ editors then being replaced and a marked switch in editorial lines favourable to PiS.

As outlined in a recent report by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) produced ahead of the election, these pressures by PiS came on top of multi-pronged campaign of regulatory, financial and legislative pressure aimed at undermining the influence of major media critical of the government, including the use of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs).

While hopes are high this democratic opening in Poland will lead to a positive reform of the media landscape in line with EU values and roll back the media capture campaign of the previous government, the path forward is strewn with pitfalls and obstacles.

 

Spotlight on TVP

As the three opposition groupings — Tusk’s Civic Coalition, Third Way (an alliance of the agrarian Polish People’s Party and the centrist Poland 2050), and the Left — work on a coalition agreement, the spotlight is on TVP, which is notorious for its pro-Law and Justice coverage.

As the OSCE noted after the elections this fall, its “distorted and openly partisan coverage” helped provide a clear advantage to the ruling party. The MFRR report also highlighted the role of TVP in parroting the PiS party line and attacking the opposition parties.

Even before they won the elections, opposition leaders had indicated that it would be a priority for them if they came to power. “We will need exactly 24 hours for PiS government television to turn into public television,” said Tusk, who is expected to head the new government, at a pre-election rally in September.

However, in reality the process for reform looks set to take longer. The new government will have to reckon with the National Media Council, whose members’ term does not end until 2028. It is not simply a matter of changing the law: any attempts by the new parliamentary majority to amend media legislation could be blocked by President Andrzej Duda, who hails from PiS but left the party when he was elected president in 2015, using his right to veto. For this reason, an alternative approach is reportedly being considered: placing the public media in a state of liquidation, in which case they would be managed by receiverships – a form of compulsory administration – which the NMC would be unable to dismiss.

“A lot of things can be done without changing the existing laws, on the basis of currently existing law and with a parliamentary majority,” said Szymon Hołownia, the leader of the Poland 2050 party, in a conversation with Super Express broadcast on October 30, referring to the public media.

In this context, the National Media Council warned in a statement published on October 27 that “an attempt to undermine the laws, e.g. by repealing resolutions on the appointment of members of the National Broadcasting Council and the National Media Council, who have a statutory six-year term of office, by liquidating public media companies, or by any other means that circumvents the statutory procedure, will be a violation of the law and the Constitution. The very announcement of the liquidation of the public media is an act to the detriment of Polish culture and raison d’état.”

As outlined by IPI in a previous analysis, the NMC – a body established by PiS after a controversial change to the media law – has been an integral part of the institutional machinery of media capture which PiS has constructed in the last few years. While the PiS-dominated body seems determined to dig in and block democratic reform to the broadcasters it oversees, addressing the broadcaster’s spread of disinformation and party propaganda is seen as being vital moving forward.

However, the mechanisms used by the opposition to do so will be closely scrutinized by the EU. Media freedom groups will be urging the future government to ensure that any changes are enacted in a democratic and legal manner and aimed at restoring editorial and institutional independence to both the public media and its oversight bodies.

Rather than simply repeat the cycle of politicized purges and replacements enacted by previous administrations on both the left and right, the future government will face calls to ensure systemic reforms which reduce the influence of all ruling parties to meddle in the broadcaster’s management and editorial line. To do so, the government will have to look beyond short-term political opportunism towards more sustained democratic recovery.

 

The fate of Polska Press

Eyes are also on PKN Orlen, with speculation about what might happen to Polska Press amid the change in government and the expected changes in management at Poland’s state-owned companies — as well as media reports that Law and Justice plans to establish a new right-wing media company as the party moves into opposition. So far, Orlen has denied reports by news platform Onet that it plans to sell Polska Press rapidly before a new, opposition-led government is formed.

“Orlen has not and is not conducting any talks on the sale of Polska Press. The Orlen Group consistently implements its strategy, which is focused on the development of modern communication channels with customers, increasing digitization of sales formats and the construction of an e-commerce platform, among other things. The investment in Polska Press is part of this strategy, in particular in terms of building an integrated digital services platform,” wrote the company’s press office in its response to Onet.

Post-election changes at state-owned companies are also expected to have implications for spending on state advertising at private media outlets from across the political spectrum. Analysis of Kantar Media data by Tadeusz Kowalski, a media studies professor at the University of Warsaw, showed that state-owned companies have been spending higher amounts on advertising in media outlets that support the government. The abuse of state advertising funds to reward favourable coverage while draining critical media of revenue has long been criticized by international media freedom groups.

The matter of independent media regulation will also be on the agenda. Under PiS, the National Broadcasting Council, KRRiT, has been accused of abusing its licensing powers to create business uncertainty and applying arbitrary financial penalties to pressure independent newsrooms. Currently the influential regulator is dominated by PiS appointees. Creating the conditions for the body to be returned to democratic management by non-political figures will also face serious challenges.

With local and European Parliament elections scheduled for 2024, the stakes are high. While the post-election changes in Poland could usher in a new era of greater media freedom, undoing damage done by the outgoing Law and Justice government, there are several thorny issues to be dealt with — from the fate of TVP to that of Polska Press — and the new government will have to tread carefully.

The real challenge for the incoming coalition government will be to take a long-term view, ensuring that the reforms are not simply a purge, but democratic changes which fundamentally depoliticize the broadcasters and strengthen editorial independence from all governments, now and in the future.

This article was commissioned by IPI as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. The project is co-funded by the European Commission.

MFRR 3 consortium logos
Library

Poland’s unfair election reinforces demands for Europe-wide Media Freedom…

Poland’s unfair election reinforces demands for Europe-wide Media Freedom Act

As the European Parliament, Council and Commission enter the final negotiations on the EMFA, media freedom and human rights groups today call for the adoption of the Parliament’s  text, which, while also in need of further strengthening, is currently the version best equipped to  roll back the creeping spread of media capture.

The recent elections in Poland underscore the need for a strong EMFA. The opposition won a majority, despite the fact the governing PiS party “enjoyed clear advantage through its undue influence over the use of state resources and the public media”, according to an interim report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

 

The recent report Media freedom at a crossroads by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) following a pre-election mission in early September highlighted the extent of political capture of the media in Poland including:

  • Converting public media into the propaganda arm of the government.
  • Weaponizing media regulators to issue arbitrary and punishing fines while threatening license removal of independent and critical broadcast media.
  • Taking over the largest regional media network through the state-controlled energy company, leading to a swift clear out of editors, who were replaced by pro-government figures.
  • Abusing of state finances to:
    • withdraw crucial advertising funds from critical media and redirect it to pro-government outlet
    • fund an unprecedented wave of vexatious lawsuits, or SLAPPs, against critical journalists.

In the case of Poland, state-led media capture was not yet extensive enough to fully control the news and information space, with private independent media demonstrating high levels of resilience. This is in part due to the financial strength of Polish media operating in a significantly larger market than in many other EU countries. However, there are not sufficient safeguards in place to prevent further capture.

 

The electoral defeat of PiS does not diminish the threat of media capture, particularly in countries where smaller markets can leave media much more vulnerable to state pressure, and must not distract European policy makers from building the necessary safeguards regardless of whichever governments are in power.

 

If the EU is serious about protecting media freedom in Europe, and thereby ensuring free and fair elections, it must adopt the European Parliament’s position on the EMFA with all its safeguards related to surveillance, public service media, ownership transparency, editorial independence, independent national and Europe wide media regulators, media pluralism and the misuse and abuse of state funds.

 

With European elections due next year, the EU must act now to establish the rules, principles and standards necessary to protect against the further and future erosion of media freedoms in Europe.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Association of European Journalists (AEJ Belgium)
  • Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD)
  • Society of Journalists, Warsaw

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

MFRR 3 consortium logos
Library

Media freedom at a crossroads: Journalism in Poland faces…

Media freedom at a crossroads: Journalism in Poland faces uncertain future ahead of election

The Media Freedom Rapid Response today issued its report “Media Freedom at a crossroads: Journalism in Poland faces uncertain future ahead of election” following its mission to Warsaw on 11 – 13 September. 

The report explores how media capture and the widespread use of vexatious lawsuits have been used to create a hostile climate for independent journalism that weakens media’s ability to contribute to free and fair elections.  

Key findings include: 

  • The public media have been fully converted into a propaganda arm of the ruling party.
  • The National Broadcasting Council, KRRiT, has abused its licensing powers to create business uncertainty and is applying arbitrary financial penalties to impose fear and self-censorship in newsrooms.
  • Media pluralism was compromised when, in 2021, the state-controlled oil company, PKN Orlen, took over the largest regional media company, Polska Press. The subsequent editorial purge and shift in editorial lines to favour the ruling party ahead of upcoming elections makes it one of the most flagrant examples of media capture in Europe.
  • State advertising has been weaponised by the government to fund favourable media outlets and undermine independent journalism which exacerbates the financial pressure on media.
  • Polish media are subjected to one of the largest number of vexatious lawsuits, or SLAPPs, in the European Union. Most are initiated by ruling party politicians, state companies, and public institutions and therefore financed by public money.
  • While Polish media have proved resilient thanks to the presence of foreign owners, the hostile economic climate may force many to withdraw. Such a move is likely to have a devastating impact on media pluralism.
  • The overwhelming majority of commentators met by the mission expressed deep concern that the country was at a crossroads and that four more years of the current policy would accelerate media capture and push Poland down the path to emulating the media environment in Hungary, Turkey, or Russia.

The mission was organised by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR). The delegation comprised of representatives of ARTICLE 19 Europe, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Free Press Unlimited (FPU), and International Press Institute (IPI). The mission took place in Warsaw between 11 – 13 September and met with a wide range of editors, journalists, regulators, civil society groups, lawyers, the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Ministry of Culture. 

A Polish language translation of the report will be published shortly.

Press contacts

ENG: Jordan Higgins (jordan.higgins@ecpmf.eu)

POL: Katia Mierzejewska (katiamierzejewska@article19.org)

This mission report was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

MFRR 3 consortium logos
Library

Report Launch: Relocation of journalists in distress in the…

Report Launch: Relocation of journalists in distress in the European Union

Uncovering the truth is dangerous and can put journalists and media workers at serious risk. When a journalist finds him- or herself in danger because someone wants to keep the public in the dark, a situation can occur where the only way to safety is to seek refuge in another country. However, restrictive asylum and visa policies all too often hamper the pathways to international protection.

On October 9th 10:30-11:30 CEST, the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) will present the findings of a thematic fact-finding mission organised earlier this year, which aims to contribute to a better understanding of six pioneering relocation mechanisms for journalists in distress within the European Union. For this purpose, the MFRR partners examined existing schemes in the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Poland, revealing salient differences and similarities in the scope and features of the responses.

Join us at the Czech Permanent Representation in Brussels or online for the report launch. The Czech mission to Brussels will host the conference. The Deputy Head of the Czech Permanent Representation to the EU Permanent Representative to the Political and Security Committee Ambassador Jitka Látal Znamenáčková will open the presentation. Professor Can Yeğinsu will then discuss the idea of emergency visa for journalists, which he developed as part of the High Level Panel of Legal Experts of the Media Freedom Coalition. Further, in a panel discussion, a journalist in exile will discuss their situation and path to obtain the emergency visa in an EU Member State. Lastly, the report’s authors will present key findings, conclusions and recommendations, and there will be time for a Q&A session.

This mission was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries.

MFRR 3 consortium logos
MFRR fact-finding mission Poland Library

Polish media grapple with unprecedented challenges and uncertain future…

Polish media grapple with unprecedented challenges and uncertain future as the country faces electoral crossroads

At the conclusion of their press freedom mission to Warsaw from 11-13 September, partner organisations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) declared that the media and journalists in Poland are facing unprecedented challenges including legal threats, financial precarity, political pressure, regulatory capture and growing polarisation.

The delegation, comprised of representatives of ARTICLE 19 Europe, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Free Press Unlimited (FPU) and International Press Institute (IPI), met with editors, journalists, regulators, civil society groups, lawyers, the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ministry of Culture to hear directly about the conditions under which media are currently operating in the build up to the parliamentary elections due on 15 October.  

Poland has long enjoyed one of the most robust and pluralistic media markets in central and eastern Europe, however in recent years Poland has witnessed intensifying efforts to assert control and influence over large sections of the media. The situation is further exacerbated by the deep polarisation within the media and between journalists.

Within weeks of the 2015 election, the ruling coalition led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party passed a provisional law to dismiss the board and senior management of public service media enabling it to take full control on the information it aired. The Telewizja Polska (TVP) today occupies approximately a third of the broadcast market and enjoys an annual budget of 2.5 billion Zlotys (550 million euros). According to monitoring figures provided by the Polish National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT) for the second quarter of 2023, the governing coalition dominates TVP news, enjoying 80% of political coverage, of which 73% is dedicated to PiS. Oppositional political parties meanwhile share the remaining 20% of coverage, which is overwhelmingly negative. 

These figures alone demonstrate how TVP is failing in the fundamental duty of any public broadcaster to provide fair and balanced political coverage between and during elections.

The private broadcast sector has also come under intense pressure through a variety of means to ensure pliable media that are cautious of holding the government to account.

KRRiT, whose composition is controlled by PiS allies, has used its licensing powers to create business uncertainty and intimidate broadcasters such as TVN and RADIO TOK FM.  In the past years, KRRiT has also issued a number of financial penalties against broadcasters for reporting on issues such as the new school history books, questioning the official report into the Smolensk air crash tragedy and child abuse within the catholic church.

Media pluralism was further compromised when the state controlled energy giant PKN Orlen took over the largest regional media company, Polska Press, in 2021 leading to the rapid replacement of most of the editors in chief with journalists from TVP and other pro-PiS media. The purchase has further restricted access to diverse media, particularly in rural areas with limited internet access. 

Local independent media are in an exceptionally precarious situation facing financial and distribution troubles, legal threats and uneven competition against media backed by the local authorities. 

Meanwhile, many private media are denied access to state advertising funds which PiS has weaponised to fund favourable media outlets and undermine independent journalism. The move exacerbates the financial pressures on media, particularly print media, that are still trying to find sustainable income streams to support the transition to digital. 

Polish media are additionally subjected to one of the largest number of vexatious lawsuits, or SLAPPs, in the European Union. Though judicial harassment of journalists is not new, since PiS came to power abusive litigation has become an inherent strategy for weakening critical media. Most SLAPPs are taken by politicians from the governing parties or state companies and public institutions and are therefore financed by public funds. 

The overwhelming majority of commentators met by the mission expressed the concern that the country was at a crossroads and that four more years of the current policy would accelerate media capture and push Poland down the path to emulating the situations in Hungary, Turkey or Russia.

The mission will issue its full report in the first week of October.

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries.

MFRR 3 consortium logos
Poland flag Library

Poland: MFRR to visit Warsaw for press freedom mission

Poland: MFRR to visit Warsaw for press freedom mission

Partner organisations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) will travel to Warsaw on 11-13 September 2023 to conduct an international press freedom mission ahead of the country’s upcoming general election on 15 October.

The MFRR mission will be joined by representatives of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), the International Press Institute (IPI), ARTICLE 19 Europe, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and Free Press Unlimited (FPU).

The delegation will assess the current state of play for media freedom and pluralism and identify the biggest challenges facing independent journalism in the context of the election. The visit to Warsaw follows a previous online fact-finding mission conducted by the MFRR in 2020.

During the mission, representatives will meet with leading journalists, editors, media experts, civil society groups, political figures and state representatives. The mission will seek to hear a broad range of views and perspectives from across the political spectrum.

Key themes to be assessed during the visit include independent media regulation, threats to media pluralism, particularly at the regional and local level, public service broadcasting, media capture, and legal threats and Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs).

A report with key conclusions and recommendations for the winner of the October 2023 election on how to improve the situation for media freedom will follow shortly after.

The MFRR monitors violations of press and media freedom in the EU Member States and candidate countries and responds with practical and legal support and advocacy. Since the project’s start in March 2020, it has conducted multiple similar media freedom missions.

This mission is coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries.

MFRR 3 consortium logos
Library

Poland: Media capture fears confirmed in new report examining…

Poland: Media capture fears confirmed in new report examining PKN Orlen takeover of Polska Press

Acquisition of country’s largest regional press publisher by state-controlled oil company has led to shrinking journalists freedoms, report finds.

The undersigned organisations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) consortium today warn that the findings of a new report assessing the impact of the takeover of regional news publisher Polska Press by Poland’s state-controlled oil company PKN Orlen illustrate a shocking example of media capture in the EU.

 

The report by the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Poland concludes that the takeover and subsequent editorial purge at Polska Press by Orlen in December 2020 has negatively affected journalists freedoms and led to a shift in editorial lines favourable to the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) ahead of upcoming elections.

 

These findings, based on multiple interviews with current and former journalists and editors at former Polska Press titles, align closely with our own assessments. They also underscore how repeated warnings made by our organisations after the acquisition about the detrimental impact Orlen’s ownership would have on independent journalism in Poland have regrettably come to fruition.

 

Since Orlen took over management of Poland’s largest publisher of regional newspapers in December 2020, 14 of the 15 regional editors-in-chief stepped down under pressure, with their replacements coming from the state broadcaster or right-wing media titles supportive of PiS. According to the report, numerous other deputy editors and journalists also quit in protest, allowing new management to appoint new reporters often based on political considerations.

 

As a result, while experiences differ between different online and print titles, the report notes that these personnel changes have led to overall shift in editorial positions across Polska Press’s network to one more favourable to the ruling party. In some media, while coverage may not be supportive of the government, it at least ceased any critical commentary or reporting which could damage the party or its leaders.

 

Meanwhile, journalistic reporting on matters sensitive for the government – such as LGBTQ rights and migration – has been broadly diminished, while the positions and perspective of the political opposition have largely been marginalised within news coverage. At some titles, both soft and overt censorship by new editors and interference by outside political forces connected to the ruling coalition have markedly increased, with damaging effects on these media’s independence and impartiality.

 

Our organisations believe this takeover of Polska Press by Orlen is one of the clearest examples anywhere in the European Union in recent years of media capture in action. Through this acquisition by the state-controlled oil company headed by a close ally of the PiS leadership, the ruling party has significantly increased its ability to influence and control news and opinion across the country. This influence extends to 20 regional dailies, 120 weekly magazines and 500 online portals, and echoes the systematic takeover of regional media in Hungary under the Fidesz government.

 

The takeover of the country’s largest regional news publisher also draws clear parallels with political capture of the county’s public broadcaster Telewizja Polska (TVP) after PiS first came to power in 2015. While the lack of independence demonstrable at Polska Press titles cannot yet be compared to the party propaganda disseminated by TVP, it nonetheless significantly weakens media pluralism in Poland and undermines the right of citizens to receive unbiased information.

 

PiS has always claimed its drive for so-called ‘repolonisation’ of the media landscape is about ensuring media reflect Polish national interests rather than those of foreign-based publishers. The case of Polska Press is the clearest indication yet that, in reality, the principal aim of this policy is about engineering greater control over domestic media and ensuring continued support for the government’s own political interests.

 

Increasing instrumentalization of these media titles is of particular concern ahead of parliamentary elections in the autumn 2023, in which the opinion of voters in Poland’s significant rural population will likely be crucial for electoral success. If approved, the election observation mission to Poland recently requested by the European Parliament should scrutinise the news output of Polska Press titles during the election period as part of its overall assessment of the media environment.

 

Our organisations also believe this case offers a stark example of the need for the EU to pass a strong and effective Media Freedom Act (EMFA). Specifically, this takeover justifies the proposed establishment of a European Board, made up of representatives from national media regulators, which could scrutinise such acquisitions in the future and challenge them if it believes media pluralism or freedom of expression are at risk.

 

Had such a body been in place when this deal was approved by the country’s competition regulator UOKiK in February 2021, heightened international scrutiny could potentially have had an impact on the ultimate decision of the regulator or resulted in concrete guarantees and stronger safeguards against political interference.

 

The damage already done to journalistic freedoms by PKN Orlen is clear. We therefore also call on all international investors and pension funds which claim to follow ethical investment guidelines to carefully consider their relationship with the company and take its corrosive effect on media pluralism and democratic values into account.

 

Moving forward, our organisations will continue to follow this case closely and continue to warn about the takeover’s damaging implications for media freedom. We welcome the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights’ report and will continue to closely monitor and document all threats to independent journalism in the build up to Poland’s parliamentary election.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

MFRR 3 consortium logos
TOK FM Library

Poland: International support for TOK FM amidst regulatory pressure

Poland: International support for TOK FM amidst regulatory pressure

The renewal of Polish radio station TOK FM’s broadcasting licence is still pending after a six-month delay, casting doubt on a possible non-renewal. We, the undersigned media freedom and journalist organisations, join TOK FM, the largest independent news and talk radio station in Poland, in their plea for the licence renewal to be made by the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT), in a timely and independent manner and based on strict professional criteria. 

TOK FM, which is the fourth-most popular radio in Poland, is nearing the end of its broadcasting licence. The licence expires on 3 November 2023. According to Polish law, a decision on its renewal must be taken within two months, but the Polish broadcasting regulator KRRiT is already six months overdue in its reply and is therefore in breach of the administrative law. For this reason, TOK FM is worried its licence might not be renewed.

 

In the last few months, TOK FM has been subjected to several “monitoring procedures” unrelated to the licence renewal process: KRRiT has requested the station to submit several days worth of recorded programs, raising concerns that the council is looking for extracts that could appear as “hate speech” that could be used against the station. 

 

These fears have been exacerbated by a fine of PLN 80,000 (€17,680) that KRRiT has recently imposed on TOK FM for strong criticism about a controversial history textbook for schools containing anti-LGBT and other far-right views, expressed by one of the radio’s journalists and his guest during a morning show. According to the chair of the broadcast media regulator, Maciej Świrski, TOK FM incited “hate speech” by using language violating Article 18(1) of the Polish Broadcasting Act, allegedly “promoting illegal activities, views and attitudes contrary to morality and social good, and containing content inciting hatred and discriminatory content.”

 

The maximum fine that can be imposed by KRRiT is half of the media’s annual licensing fee. In TOK FM’s case, PLN 80,000 amounts to 90% of the maximum imposable fine. Kamila Ceran, the station’s editor-in-chief, confirmed that the appeal was lodged with the Audiovisual Council, which is obliged to forward the appeal to the court within 30 days. 

 

While Poland’s media landscape remains vibrant and pluralistic overall, in recent years independent media critical of PiS have faced a multi-pronged campaign of regulatory, financial and legislative pressure aimed at undermining their influence. Recent regulatory decisions by KRRiT, which is controlled by figures appointed by PiS, have drawn increased international attention and criticism of its chairperson.

 

Our organisations call on the National Broadcasting Council to take an impartial decision as soon as possible regarding  the renewal of the broadcasting licence of TOK FM, and reiterate previous calls on the Polish government to stop its pressure against free and independent media.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

MFRR 3 consortium logos