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Poland: Stronger U.S. and EU action required over ‘lex…

Poland: Stronger U.S. and EU action required over ‘lex TVN’

The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today calls for swift and robust action by the European Union and U.S. to defend media freedom in Poland and counter the serious attack on the independence of the country’s largest private television channel, TVN, by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Our organisations believe that the so-called “lex TVN” and the ongoing deadlock over the renewal of the license for its 24-hour news channel TVN24 are part of an increasingly systematic effort by PiS to erode critical journalism by engineering ownership changes of critical independent media ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections.

On 7 July, PiS MPs submitted a draft bill to parliament which would bar companies which are majority-owned by entities from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) from owning more than a 49% stake in Polish broadcasters. It is clear this bill is aimed directly at the ownership structure of U.S.-owned TVN and TVN24, which broadcast the country’s most-watched news program, Fakty, and have long held a critical editorial stance towards PiS.

As U.S.-based Discovery owns 100% of TVN through a subsidiary registered in the Netherlands, it would be forced to sell 51% of its $1 billion stake to comply with the new regulations. This would open the door for state-linked investors to purchase the shares, muzzling the country’s most influential critical broadcaster and increasing the government’s level of control over the media market. A similar pattern has already been seen in the purchase of regional publisher Polska Press by Poland’s state-controlled oil company.

We are increasingly concerned that, despite warnings by officials at the U.S. State Department and top EU officials, PiS’s leadership appears determined to push ahead with its plans. On 27 July, the draft bill was adopted by the parliamentary committee for culture and media, paving the way for a vote in the Sejm in mid-August. Given the speed with which PiS are driving the bill through parliament, diplomatic efforts must be immediately intensified to send a clear signal to the ruling party that the EU and U.S. are serious about defending independent journalism in Poland with all available tools.

Top officials in Washington must stress unequivocally that the passing of this bill is an attack on independent media, as well as on American investments in Poland, and would significantly damage U.S.-Polish relations and cooperation in a range of fields.

At the same time, Poland’s broadcast media regulator, the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT), remains in deadlock over the renewal of TVN24’s 10-year media license, which expires on September 26. Despite applying for the permit 18 months ago, KRRiT’s five-member panel remains divided on the case, increasing uncertainty for TVN and leading to accusations the decision is being deliberately delayed. Recently, the head of the broadcast regulator, a former PiS member, alleged that TVN24 was in violation of foreign ownership rules, ramping up the pressure further.

Given PiS’s long hostility towards TVN and the fact that the broadcaster has had no issues in renewing licenses of several of its other Polish channels, any decision by the government-dominated KRRiT to reject TVN24’s license renewal at the current time should be considered deeply discriminatory and politically motivated. In this event, the European Commission should immediately consider launching infringement proceedings against Poland over the violation of EU law on the fair and non-discriminatory allocation of broadcast licenses.

Moving forward, our organisations urge Polish MPs – especially those in PiS’s coalition parties in the United Right – to vote to reject this bill during the next hearing. Moreover, while the open letter by Polish journalists in defence of TVN is an important initiative, it is crucial that journalists from across Poland’s media spectrum sign and speak in a unified voice. A political attack on one media outlet should be opposed as an attack on all. Ultimately, if TVN can fall to PiS meddling then no media outlet is safe. Time is running out.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19
  • Committee to Protect Journalists
    European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
    International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
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Poland: Independent media under attack again as PiS moves…

Poland: Independent media under attack again as PiS moves against TVN24

Draft bill plans to limit non-European ownership of Polish media

The International Press Institute (IPI) today expressed grave concern about draft legislative proposals by lawmakers from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party which would ban non-European ownership of Polish media and warned that the changes are targeted directly at U.S.-owned critical broadcaster TVN24, the country’s most watched news channel.

IPI said the draft media bill was the latest element in an increasingly systematic effort by the ruling party to erode critical journalism, stressing the plans should be met with forceful opposition by both the U.S. government and the European Union.

The draft bill, which was submitted to Parliament on July 7 by a group of PiS lawmakers, would amend Article 35 of the Broadcasting Act to bar companies which are majority-owned by entities from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) from owning more than a more than 49% stake in Polish media.

TVN24 and its parent company TVN have been 100% owned by U.S.-based Discovery, Inc. since 2015 through a subsidiary registered in the Netherlands, to meet current requirements under Polish law. If approved, the new regulation would strengthen those restrictions to ban Discovery from owning TVN through its Dutch subsidiary.

This means Discovery would have six months to adjust and could be faced with selling 51% of its stakes in TVN, which is valued at around $1 billion. If it did not, TVN’s channels such as TVN24 could be stripped of their media licenses by the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT).

The draft legislation comes as TVN24 awaits a decision by KRRiT on the renewal of its current 10-year media license, which expires in September. Despite applying for the permit 18 months ago, the five-member panel of the broadcast regulator remains divided on the case, creating pressure on the broadcaster on two fronts.

“If this bill is passed, Discovery would either be forced to sell off its shares in TVN24 to another company – very likely one more amenable to PiS – or stripped of its media license and be eliminated from the market”, IPI’s Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “This bill is an outrageous effort by the Polish government to silence a major television news broadcaster because of its critical content. It is a direct attack by an EU member state on media pluralism and an unmistakable sign that Poland is pursuing a Hungary-style form of media takeover.

“Not content with having independent regional media bought up by the state-controlled oil company, PiS is now moving to the next stage of its so-called ‘repolonisation’ project by going after TVN24. This tactic of pressuring or forcing foreign companies to sell up and leave the domestic market is not about principle. It is an effort to concentrate media control in the hands of PiS. It is also a hallmark of the media capture model honed by the Orbán government. When foreign or independent owners are pushed out, companies linked to the ruling party step in, buy up the company and then flip its editorial line, silencing critical voices and destroying watchdog journalism.

“The case of Klubrádió in Hungary has made it clear how a mixture of regulatory and legal tools can be effective in blocking the license renewal of a leading broadcaster and forcing it off air. We cannot watch in slow motion as the same thing happens to TVN24 in Poland. The EU must be ready to launch immediate infringement proceedings against Warsaw if the media regulator ends up blocking the license in a discriminatory manner. The U.S. government should increase its efforts to make it clear to its Polish ally that any attempt to interfere with independent media would seriously damage relations. The Biden administration must follow up its rhetoric about standing up for democratic values and a free press with concrete actions.”

Pressure on critical broadcaster

A key player in the Polish broadcast news market for nearly 20 years, TVN24 has long been a thorn in the side of the ruling PiS party, particularly on coverage of issues such as LGTBQ rights and abortion reforms. It has also revealed irregularities and alleged corruption and broken news of scandals in Law and Justice. This has made it a key target for the party when it swept to power in 2015. Immediately, leading PiS officials launched attacks on TVN and accused it being biased and siding with the opposition.

After the U.S. media conglomerate Discovery, Inc. bought TVN and its all-news channel TVN24 in 2015, the station then became a key target of PiS’s plans to bring the country’s media back under Polish control. This drive for so-called “repolonisation” of media has been framed by the government as an issue of national sovereignty. In reality, the efforts are aimed at cementing greater control over the media landscape.

In recent years, PiS has floated the idea of passing legislative changes to limit the amount of foreign capital in the domestic market, which would have affected Discovery. In response, the then U.S. ambassador under former President Donald Trump came to the defence and diplomatic pressure played a part in forcing the Ministry to shelve the plans.

The current bill appears to be targeted directly at TVN24. Currently, Polish law says that foreign companies outside the EEA can only be granted a broadcasting license for media if they own less than 49 per cent of the shares. However, there is a clause which means this rule can be waived if the headquarters of the direct shareholder of the media outlet is located within the EEA. TVN and TVN24 are owned by Discovery via its subsidiary Polish Television Holding BV, which is registered in the Netherlands, an EU member state, meaning it abides by Polish regulations.

In the past, this has been sufficient for KRRiT, the broadcast media regulator, which has extended licences for other TVN channels since 2016. However, recently the head of KRRiT, Witold Kolodziejski, has said that TVN24 is in breach of foreign ownership rules and called for the laws to be strengthened. Kolodziejski is a former member of the PiS party. The new draft amendment would remove the clause in Article 35 of the Broadcasting Act which includes the waiver for foreign companies with subsidiaries, meaning Discovery would be affected.

The direct attack on Discovery’s ownership has ruffled U.S. feathers. In response, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, Bix Aliu, has expressed serious concern, tweeting: “TVN has been an essential part of the Polish media landscape for over 20 years. Unfettered press is crucial for democracy.” Polish media reported that the comment came after behind-the-scenes efforts by the chargé d’affaires to meet with KRRiT were rebuffed.

Since the bill was proposed last week, leading PiS figures have come out in support. In media interviews, PiS officials have framed it as bringing legislation into line with other EU member states and closing a loophole in the current law. In a written justification, PiS MPs wrote that the bill was “aimed at clarifying regulations” and enabling KRRiT to “effectively counteract” foreign companies controlling radio and television broadcasters.

Others have been more candid. One of the MPs who submitted the bill, Marek Suski, told Rzeczpospolita that Discovery would “probably have to sell some of its shares” in TVN if the legislation is passed. Asked if state-owned firms could then seek to buy the station, Suski said he “cannot rule it out”. In separate remarks, Suski said that “if this law is successfully passed and some of these shares can be bought by Polish businessmen, we will have some influence on what is happening on this station.”

Last week, Kołodziejski, confirmed at a parliamentary committee that the regulator has been analysing whether TVN should be counted as a non-EEA entity. KRRiT’s five-member council is currently divided over the case. At least a 4:1 majority is needed to approve the renewal or denial of the new 10-year license. This renewal process has been ongoing for a year and a half. KRRiT’s spokesperson has justified the delay by saying the regulator needed more information about the merger between Discovery and WarnerMedia.

The draft text of the bill was swiftly submitted to the Sejm with no advance warning for PiS’s coalition partners. One of them, Agreement (Porozumienie), has raised concern about the bill and noted that the party had not been consulted. The party’s spokesman Jan Strzeżek said on Twitter that he would “not want to wake up in a Poland where there is only one TV station. Media pluralism cannot be legally limited”.

Vera Jourova, vice president of the EU Commission and its commissioner for values and transparency, said: “The new draft Polish law on broadcasting concessions is yet another worrying signal for media freedom and pluralism in the country. We follow closely the situation related to TVN24 whose license has not been renewed yet.”

In response, Discovery has said it would “defend the business against growing regulatory overreach, anti-consumer behaviour and other market uncertainty that would undercut Poland’s business environment”. TVN has more than a dozen television channels in Poland, as well as an online video platform. If the license is not renewed by September 26, TVN24 would have legal options to fight the decision. However, this would mean it would celebrate its 20th anniversary of operations in Poland in a fight for survival.

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Independent media under attack in Poland: the case of…

Independent media under attack in Poland: the case of TVN24

In the latest example of pressure on independent media in Poland, U.S.-owned broadcaster TVN24 could lose its broadcasting licence following legislative proposals by lawmakers from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to ban non-European ownership of Polish media.

By IPI contributor Annabelle Chapman

Like its parent company TVN, TVN24 has been 100% owned by U.S.-based Discovery, Inc. since 2015 via its subsidiary Polish Television Holding BV, which is registered in the Netherlands, an EU member state, which means that it abides by Polish regulations.

In the first half of 2021, Fakty, the evening news program broadcast on the TVN and TVN24 BiS news channels, was the most-watched news program in Poland with 2.76 million viewers on average and an audience share of 21.72 per cent.

This put it slightly ahead of Wiadomości, public television broadcaster TVP’s main evening news program, which had an audience share of 20.46 per cent. TVN24’s news coverage has offered viewers an alternative to that broadcast by TVP, which was taken over by the ruling Law and Justice party shortly after winning the elections in 2015.

TVN’s critical news coverage has prompted pressure from the authorities more than once. In December 2017, Poland’s National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT) announced a 1.5-million-zloty (356,000 euros) fine for TVN over its allegedly unbalanced coverage of protests outside the Polish parliament in December 2016. The fine was rescinded in January 2018, following criticism in Poland and abroad, including a statement by the U.S. Department of State warning that it “appears to undermine media freedom in Poland”.

In a separate incident in November 2018, TVN said it was facing intimidation after Poland’s Internal Security Agency (ABW) entered the home of a TVN cameraman and called him to a hearing, accused of propagating Nazi propaganda in a report he filmed on a Polish neo-Nazi group. The hearing was later cancelled, after a strong reaction from the U.S. ambassador to Poland at the time, Georgette Mosbacher, who, in a letter to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, expressed her “deep concern” over the government’s treatment of TVN.

This time, the incident concerns the right of TVN – whose license ends in September – to continue broadcasting in Poland, with a draft bill submitted to parliament by PiS lawmakers on July 7 proposing to bar companies which are majority-owned by entities from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) from owning more than a more than 49 per cent stake in Polish media. If adopted, Discovery could be forced to sell 51 per cent of its stakes in TVN to comply with the new regulations.

Like in previous incidents concerning TVN, it has been defended by the U.S. On July 8, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, Bix Aliu, tweeted: “TVN has been an essential part of the Polish media landscape for over 20 years. Unfettered press is crucial for democracy.”

Latest step in repolonization

The recent pressure on TVN24 is part of a longer-term current in the PiS-led ruling camp’s approach to the foreign-owned media referred to as “repolonization”, which involves reducing foreign ownership of media companies in Poland (the term has also been used by PiS politicians in relation to banks). This is based on the claim, put forward by some politicians in the ruling camp, that foreign-owned media outlets, especially German-owned ones, are deliberately critical of the current government.

Government representatives had alluded to plans to “repolonize” foreign-owned media in the past, but the subject receded from the agenda as the party focused on winning a series elections between 2018 and 2020, before resurfacing during the presidential election campaign last summer. In an interview with the Polish Press Agency published on July 14, 2020, PiS’s chairman, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, said that “media in Poland should be Polish”.

This attitude underlay the acquisition of one of the country’s largest media companies, Polska Press, from German company Verlagssgruppe Passau by state-controlled oil refiner and petrol retailer PKN Orlen, which has led to a purge of editorial management at regional newspapers it owns this year.

In this context, critics warn that the draft bill on foreign media ownership submitted to parliament this month is the latest step in this process and that TVN will be the next casualty.

Marek Suski, who led the group of PiS lawmakers behind the bill, has presented it as an attempt to defend national interests. “We protect Polish interests, even though we are friends with the United States,” he said this month at a meeting of readers of Gazeta Polska, a right-wing weekly.

However, the draft bill has faced criticism from the economically liberal Agreement party, one of PiS’s two junior coalition partners. Its leader, Jaroslaw Gowin, has indicated that Agreement will not back the draft in its current form. Instead, the party will file an amendment that would limit majority ownership of the media in Poland to entities within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which includes the U.S., “so that media operating in Poland cannot fall into the hands of capital from countries that are guided by anti-democratic values,” he said.

Gowin’s stance could force the bill’s authors to rethink its content – not just for the sake of relations with the U.S, but also to preserve the integrity of the PiS-led majority in parliament, which has already been threatened by earlier tensions within the ruling coalition. Speaking on TV Republika, a right-wing television channel, on July 14, Suski himself has indicated that it has made him pessimistic about the draft bill’s future.

This article is part of IPI’s reporting series “Media freedom in Europe in the shadow of Covid”, which comprises news and analysis from IPI’s network of correspondents throughout the EU. Articles do not necessarily reflect the views of IPI or MFRR. This reporting series is supported by funding from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom and by the European Commission (DG Connect) as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response, a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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Poland: PKN Orlen media purchase violates EU merger rules…

Poland: PKN Orlen media purchase violates EU merger rules and media pluralism standards

The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today said that allowing the acquisition of regional newspaper publisher Polska Press by Poland’s state-controlled oil giant PKN Orlen to go forward would violate both EU and Polish merger rules and undermine media pluralism.

The MFRR supports legal arguments to this effect made by consortium member ARTICLE 19, which recently submitted an amicus brief to the Warsaw regional court of competition. The court is currently hearing the appeal of the Polish Human Rights Ombudsman against the January decision by Poland’s competition regulator, UOKiK, to approve the purchase.

The MFRR and other international media freedom and civil society groups have previously warned that the deal would hand the Law and Justice (PiS) government greater control over the media landscape ahead of upcoming local elections and lead to a purge of critical journalists and editors akin to the takeover of Telewizja Polska in 2016.

The purchase risks the acceleration of state-led media capture in Poland and echoes developments in Hungary in the mid-2010s, when government-backed oligarchs snapped up the country’s regional newspapers, turning them into party mouthpieces.

While Orlen is nominally a private company, the Polish state is the main stakeholder in the company and holds 32 percent of the voting rights. Orlen has itself stated, in recent occasions, that the Polish state has “de facto control” over the company.

Since finalising the sale, Orlen has broken clear commitments to respect editorial independence and staffing by dismissing or pushing out eight editors-in-chief at Polska Press titles, in contradiction of the court’s interim decision suspending the purchase.

Ahead of the ruling, the MFRR supports the appeal brought by Ombudsman Adam Bodnar and joins ARTICLE 19 stressing that the Regional Court in Warsaw must ensure its decision complies with both EU law on mergers and with Poland’s obligations with regards to European standards on media pluralism.

 


Legal analysis

We believe UOKiK’s failure to examine the extent of the Polish state’s control over Orlen and the clear risks to editorial independence this may pose – in addition its failure to consider the impact the acquisition has on competition and media pluralism – invalidates the entire assessment and constitutes sufficient ground for annulment of its original decision.

Firstly, it is clear that the Polish state wields de facto control over Orlen, with combined voting rights of 32.42%. The company’s CEO  was appointed by the government and has clear political allegiances to PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński. This raises serious questions about the future editorial independence of Polska Press and the risk of indirect government censorship.

Given the Polish government’s increasingly alarming record on media freedom and concerns about PiS’s use of Orlen to direct public advertising revenue away from critical outlets and distort the media market, UOKiK had a duty to assess the question of state control. However, its original assessment failed to examine this fundamental issue.

Orlen has already replaced the editors-in-chief of numerous Polska Press titles with journalists coming from the state-controlled broadcaster TVP and other pro-PiS media, in a first move to end criticism and ensure favourable coverage. Orlen’s other investments in the media sector, most prominently the creation of the Sigma BIS advertising agency with the state-owned insurance company PZU, is another sign of coordinated state cooperation and control.

Secondly, under EU law media pluralism is one of the factors that must be considered when assessing a merger. In testing the purchase with regards to the Polish Anti-Monopoly Act, which reflects the same test provided by EU merger rules, UOKiK should therefore have taken into account the risk that the transaction may have a negative impact on media pluralism in Poland. Its failure to do so constitutes sufficient ground for annulment of the decision.

Thirdly, by failing to assess whether the proposed takeover led to an infringement of Article 11(2) of the EU Charter regarding the freedom and pluralism of the media, UOKiK violated Article 4(3) TEU and Poland’s obligation of sincere cooperation with the European Union while carrying out its merger control assessment – another significant violation.

Lastly, UOKiK failed to consider media pluralism under the European Convention of Human Rights. By authorising a merger that would negatively impact media pluralism, or at the very minimum by authorising a merger without duly scrutinising the impact it could have on media pluralism, the state, through UOKiK, infringed its duties under Article 10 of the Convention.

Taken together, the MFRR firmly believe these failures by UOKiK warrant a decision by the court to repeal its original decision approving PKN Orlen’s December 2020 purchase of Polska Press from German company Verlagsgruppe Passau. Doing so would not only represent a victory for the rule of law, but also be an important victory for media freedom, pluralism and independence in Poland.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
President of the United States Joe Biden Photo: The White House Library

Biden urged to address media freedom in Hungary and…

Biden urged to address media freedom in Hungary and Poland during Europe visit

The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) has published an open letter to U.S. President Joe Biden, urging him to address the deteriorating state of media freedom in Hungary and Poland as he meets with EU and NATO partners this week.

Dear President Biden,

On the occasion of your visit to Brussels to meet with the European Union and NATO partners, the Media Freedom Rapid Response wants to draw your attention to a serious deterioration in media freedom in certain European countries that profoundly threatens the rule of law underpinning our democracies and mutual security.

We are particularly concerned by the situation in Poland and Hungary where the respective governments have set out on a steady path to erode media pluralism and silence critical journalism through a process of state-led capture of the media.

Hungary is the leading exponent of the state capture strategy, by applying regulatory, legal and financial powers and creating a hostile environment that punishes and excludes critical media while building a pro-government propaganda apparatus. Independent media are subjected to a range of state-driven economic pressures such as the withdrawal of state advertising, targeted taxing and the removal of licenses. Most recently, the license of the radio broadcasterKlubrádió was denied on arbitrary grounds, a move that has now prompted an official enquiryby the European Commission.

Poland is now firmly set on a similar trajectory with the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party systematically undermining independent media, including foreign-owned media such as TVN24. Efforts to tighten the screws on independent media include blocking unfavoured mergers, a proposed new advertising tax, the discriminatory use of state advertising and a stream of vexatious lawsuits against its media critics. PiS has engaged PKN Orlen, the state-controlled energy giant, as a vehicle for gaining control over independent media. Its acquisition of regional news publisher Polska Press has already led to an editorial purge ahead of local elections.

These are not isolated cases. Media freedom is under increased pressure as populist politicians around the world, and in Europe, abuse government power to attack free speech. This, in turn, threatens democracy and the rule of law as bedrocks of the transatlantic relationship.

The U.S. has long been a leader when it comes to championing press freedom and free speech around the world. We believe that your visit offers an important opportunity to reclaim that mantle at a critical time and reinforce the U.S.’s commitment to media freedom as a shared value.

We therefore urge you as President of the United States to support efforts by the European Commission to demand reform in Poland and Hungary that guarantee media pluralism and independent journalism

Kind regards

International Press Institute

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

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Poland: Orlen continues editorial purge at Polska Press

Poland: Orlen continues editorial purge at Polska Press

A purge of editorial management at regional newspapers owned by Polska Press has gathered pace in the last month, as the shockwaves of the controversial takeover of the publishing house by Poland’s state-controlled oil giant PKN Orlen continue to be felt.

A total of eight editors-in-chief have now been dismissed or pushed out since Orlen acquired the publishing house in March, with other editors and journalists at Polska Press titles across the country resigning in recent weeks.

Their dismissal and replacement by numerous journalists arriving from the state-controlled public broadcaster Telewizja Polska and other pro-government media has heightened fears that a Hungary-style takeover of regional media is now underway in Poland.

The accelerating editorial changes come despite a ruling made by a competition court in Warsaw in April which suspended regulatory approval of the acquisition by Orlen while an appeal brought by the country’s human rights ombudsman Adam Bodnar is examined.

Despite instructions by the District Court in Warsaw for Orlen not to make any personnel changes in the management board, Orlen began to dismiss members and replace them with its own appointments. It has now changed the entire management structure.

Among those appointed to the influential oversight board was Dorota Kania, a pro-government journalist and former editor-in-chief of editor-in-chief of Telewizja Republika. In mid-May, a new Polska Press president with experience overseeing pro-Law and Justice (PiS) media and state owned-companies was appointed following a hiring process in which candidates were given just four days to submit their applications.

Editorial changes

After Oren took over, newsrooms received letters from the oil conglomerate assuring them that editorial independence would not be affected, while the company’s CEO, Daniel Obajtek, explicitly promised journalists there would be no layoffs at Polska Press titles.

These pledges proved to be short lived. In late April, Obajtek backtracked and said that the owner had the right to make “certain personnel decisions in managerial positions”. In April, three editors-in-chiefs at Dziennik Zachodni, Gazeta Codzienna Nowiny and Gazeta Krakowska were dismissed and replaced with figures with clear links to pro-PiS media outlets or TVP.

More changes followed on June 1, with editors-in-chief at Gazeta Wrocławska, Głos Wielkopolski, Gazeta Lubuska and Polish Metropolis of Warsaw all dismissed. The same day it was also announced that the editor-in-chief of the Gazeta Pomorska, Express Bydgoski and News Dziennik Toruński would be leaving.

While some of these editor-in-chiefs left by so-called “mutual agreement” – shorthand for a diplomatic dismissal – others resigned themselves or were shuffled to other positions within the newspapers. Orlen has attempted to stress that employees left voluntarily, however it has also refused to make details of the severance pay public. Many of the replacements have experience working in the state broadcaster or other pro-PiS media.

Following the ownership change, other journalists have resigned from their posts. In May, the first deputy editor-in-chief of the Polska Times resigned citing the ownership changes. The long serving deputy editor-in-chief and another journalist have left Dziennik Zachodni, while another journalist resigned from Głos Wielkopolski. Meanwhile, articles not welcomed by members of the new Polska Press board have been removed from newspaper’s websites.

Polska Press is one of the country’s largest media companies, owning 20 regional dailies, 120 weekly magazines and 500 online portals across the country.

PiS media control

Analysts and Polish media experts have described the managerial and editorial changes as a conservative coup at the publishing company. At best, experts suggest, soft censorship will pressure newspapers to dampen criticism and slowly encourage reporting favourable to the government. At worst, they could now be deformed into propaganda mouthpieces of the PiS.

Either way, the changes have illustrated concerns raised by media freedom organisations including IPI that Orlen ownership would lead to a purge of critical journalists akin to the takeover of the public television and radio at the start of its first mandate in 2015. Further editorial changes at Polska Press titles are now expected to follow.

This state-led capture of local media mirrors the efforts undertaken by allies of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in 2016 and 2017 to buy up regional publications, often from foreign owners, as in the case of Polska Press. There too, acquisitions by politically connected owners led to meddling and an exodus of journalists who were dismissed or quit, after which the editorial line was flipped. Virtually all regional media in Hungary are now under the control of the Fidesz party and its allies. Experts have frequently noted that access to independent news in areas outside of Hungary’s largest cities is now heavily limited.

Unlike in Hungary, where government-friendly businessmen were used to snap up media outlets, in Poland the government has instead relied upon the state-controlled oil company headed by a PiS loyalist as its economic engine for buying media.

The takeover of local media in Poland has also been timed for political reasons. In 2023, Polish voters will go to the polls in tightly contested local elections in which PiS is determined to wrestle back control over urban centres. Friendly coverage at Polska Press’s 20 regional dailies and 150 weeklies could provide a valuable campaign tool during the electoral race for shaping public opinion.

On a broader level, Orlen’s acquisition of the publishing house from the German Verlagsgruppe Passau Capital Group is part of PiS’s multi-year efforts to establish greater political control over the private media sector and push foreign capital out of the domestic market, as outlined in a report by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR). Labelled “repolonisation” and framed as an issue of national sovereignty by the government, these efforts are aimed at cementing more indirect control over the media landscape ahead of elections.