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The "Orbanization" of Media in Poland

12 Mar 2021
By Dr Katarzyna Williams
Poland. Source: John Banson

While the idea of taxing giant media platforms is widely supported in Poland, and in Europe generally, the new tax proposal raises serious doubts. The overwhelming sentiment of the Polish media views the tax as a serious threat to freedom of speech and freedom of choice.

On 9 February 2021, 45 independent media outlets signed an open letter to the Polish government, protesting its plans to introduce a new tax on internet and conventional advertising. The tax, as the government explained, was intended to boost the National Health Fund, as well as the culture and heritage funds, in the fight against COVID-19. At one go, it was also supposed to help – as Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declared at the press conference – “provide equal opportunities in the media market” by taxing the digital giants operating in Poland, such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, or Apple.

While the idea of taxing giant media platforms is widely supported in Poland, and in Europe generally, the new tax proposal raises serious doubts. In their open letter the editors of media outlets warned against a serious threat to freedom of speech and freedom of choice. They wrote: “This is nothing but a levy, which will hit Polish viewers, listeners, readers and internet users, as well as Polish productions, culture, sport and the media.” They pointed out that the tax, confusingly called a “premium,” will most likely be trivial for the digital giants, however smaller companies may not be able to pull through. It will force restrictions on the way the independent media operates, or will simply result in their closure. Most importantly, it will limit the audience’s choice and access to un-biased information.

On February 10, with blacked out television screens, front pages, and web portals, the private media protested against the proposed tax. Broadcasting only the monotonous message “Your favourite program was supposed to be here,” they tried to show what media landscape would look like without them. The “Media Without Choice” protest was met with great social support, both on social media and on the streets. The protesters expressed their objection not only to the government’s attempts to limit media freedom, but also to the content of programs broadcast by the state-owned television, TVP.

According to Reporters Without Borders, TVP news programs “have been transformed into government propaganda mouthpieces.” In its report on public media messages and language, The Society of Journalists pointed out “Lies, distortions and omissions; linguistic and visual manipulations; invectives and hate speech; divisions into us and them; targeting of minorities…; fuelling national pride; [the feeling of] superiority over and contempt for other nations; [and the] awakening of anti-Semitism”.

Mocking the “Media Without Choice” protest, the public television channel, TVP Info, referred to state-owned media as “Media with choice,” and reminded the viewers that “The subscription funds make it possible for us not to follow foreign interests and to accurately describe reality, and reveal what others would like to hide.” On the screen, the news tickers informed brazenly that “International media syndicates do not want to pay for health care,” or that “Media companies do not want to share their multi-million dollar profits with Poles.”

The work by the Polish government on regulating the digital giants has been an ongoing and so far unsuccessful process. Thus, there is little trust in Morawiecki’s words that this new tax is “a fair step towards providing equal opportunities for domestic players in various industries compared to big foreign players.” Indeed, domestic players  most vigorously protested against this “fair step,” mainly because advertising remains their main source of financing and because they already pay taxes and various fees to the state budget each year.

For Robert Feluś, editor-in-chief of Wprost, the government’s idea to impose an advertising tax on the media and justify it with the need to raise funds to fight COVID-19 is “extremely shameless, harmful and treacherous” The editor of Rzeczpospolita, Bogusław Chrabota, suggested in an editorial the tax is a “systemic revenge” against all those who are critical of the government.

The media protest brought also international attention back to the situation in Poland. Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, expressed her concerns about “the recent attempt by the Polish government to suppress free media.” Roberta Metsola, the Vice-President of the European Parliament, stressed that “Without free media, there is no democracy.” Christian Wigand, the spokesperson at the European Commission, commented that “We expect Member States to ensure that their fiscal or other policies will not affect the duty of ensuring a free, independent and diverse media ecosystem.”

The high politicization of media and their controlling institutions in Poland has been observed since the very beginning of the PiS government. In 2015, the state-owned media became an open propaganda tool of the government, praising each decision of the government’s leaders, portraying the opposition as enemies of the state, broadcasting programs with government-approved messages, and silencing voices inconvenient for the government.

PiS politicians expressed their desire to regulate the market by reducing the share of individual companies in the media market and by limiting foreign capital share in media companies. In 2020, PKN Orlen, a Polish oil refiner and petrol retailer controlled by the government, took over Polska Press from the German Verlagsgruppe Passau Capital Group. This was a significant move, as Polska Press publishes 20 out of 24 regional dailies and nearly 120 local weeklies.

The concerns repeated ad nauseam about erosion of democracy in Poland and Hungary must be treated seriously, as the steps to silence dissenting voices are being made shamelessly. A day before the protests in Poland, a Hungarian court issued a ruling that upheld the government’s decision not to renew the licence of Klubrádió, the last remaining independent radio station in Hungary. In the official statement, Zoltan Kovacs, the Hungarian government spokesman, stressed the decision is the result of Klubrádió’s “flagrantly disregarding broadcasting regulations.” But for opposition politicians, the majority of society, and international commentators, the Klubrádió case simply reflects Orban’s political pressure on independent and critical media. Klubrádió will remain able to broadcast online, but it is, as the EU Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, observed, “Another silenced voice in Hungary.”

What has been called the “Orbanization” of Hungary is now an international phenomenon. Polish lawyers specializing in the media market see the takeover of Polska Press by Orlen as nothing else but “Orbanization.” Commenting on the recent situation and the new government’s proposal, a media scholar, Maciej Mrozowski, suggested that “perhaps PiS is losing faith in its TVP propaganda and is looking to expand this activity? I do not see any other justification.” Another media scholar, Wiesław Godzic, commented that now “comes the most difficult moment [for media], that is, reaching the recipients with the message: ‘We are not freeloaders who want to impose annoying ads on you.’” He doubts that people know much about media, how the media functions, and what they can offer. Education thus seems to be the only long-term solution for people to understand that without free media, people cannot be free.

In the context of mass protests and disagreements even within the groups allied with the ruling party, we can still hope that the media tax proposal might be revised or simply binned. Yet, irrespectively, education and communication will remain crucial – the sine qua non of public engagement and Poles being able to resolve the crisis of democracy in their own country.

Dr Katarzyna K Williams is Deputy Director and Jean Monnet Research Fellow at the ANU Centre for European Studies.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.