Poland: How the new „media tax” would further undermine press freedom

Morawiecki, Kaczyński i Orban na wspólnym spotkaniu w Warszawie/ Źródło: Twitter @OrbanPl

Morawiecki, Kaczyński i Orban na wspólnym spotkaniu w Warszawie/ Źródło: Twitter @OrbanPl

If Polish government really wants to improve funding of the health system, they should have spent 2 bln zloty last year on health care and not on propaganda, manipulation, and disinformation on public television – says Bartosz Wieliński, a journalist from Gazeta Wyborcza, EURACTIV’s media partner.

Poland in Focus: New "media tax" to further undermine press freedom

Karolina Zbytniewska and Bartosz Wieliński from the foreign desk of Gazeta Wyborcza discussed the real reasons behind the media tax and the reaction of the EU and the US.

Karolina Zbytniewska, EURACTIV.pl: The Polish government wants to introduce a new tax on the media levied on income from commercials. Major private outlets unitedly protested against this measure last Wednesday with an unprecedented 24-hour blackout, also Gazeta Wyborcza. How do you see this new so-called solidarity tax?

Bartosz Wieliński: I wouldn’t call it a tax, this is a kind of extortion. It’s a measure that the Polish conservative government wants to take in order to quell the freedom of media in Poland. It’s another harsh measure to suppress our liberties. This is a worrying element of a long-lasting campaign against free media that lasts for six years. Well, this started in 2016 in January by taking over the Polish public media; they fired or forced to resign almost 200 hundred journalists from Polish Television and Polish Radio. Now, after using the police and special forces to shadow journalists, they decided to go on the offensive and impose a new regulation – extortion – to deprive media outlets of money. This is a kind of robbery, this is a kind of crime. You can’t call it a tax.

How the new tax – or how this another step in muzzling the Polish media – would influence the situation of Gazeta Wyborcza and its publishing house Agora, and more broadly of the Polish media market?

I’m a journalist. I’m not the man who deals with money or numbers. But, of course, we are selling advertisements. They would demand this money from us if this law is passed, and our revenue will be diminished by that significantly. There will be financial consequences. The crisis of the media in Poland lasts for at least ten years. It was caused by the global crisis, digital transformation of media; by many factors. The government of Law and Justice (PiS) did nothing to improve this condition; it made it even harsher. We have been victims of the boycott of the government and its affiliates. Almost all subscriptions of Gazeta Wyborcza were canceled by the government. We receive no advertisements from the government or state-run companies. Our questions are not being answered. Three days ago Minister of Culture declined to answer the question of one opposition’s lawmaker saying that he’s not answering the question based on the quotes from Gazeta Wyborcza. This is a kind of open discrimination of a major media outlet. Now they try to make our situation harder. I’m pretty sure it’s being done on purpose. They’re following the example of Hungary where such measures allowed the government of Viktor Orban to bring media outlets to the verge of financial collapse, and then to take them over by oligarchs and transform them into loyal propaganda machinery, or to disband them like it was made with the famous daily Népszabadság.

You’re saying that it has been done on purpose, but according to the government, the real purpose is, first, supporting Polish public health and culture, and second, taxing the Big Tech that is avoiding taxes.

This is a lie. Let’s be clear on that. This is nothing but false propaganda. If the government really wants to improve funding of the health system in Poland, they should have spent 2 bln zloty (c. 450 million euro) last year on health care and not on propaganda, manipulation, and disinformation on public television. This happened last year when president Duda signed a bill granting a special donation to the public media of the just mentioned 2 bln zloty, which helped him win the presidential election because the propaganda. The support of the public media during the presidential campaign was immense – without it, he wouldn’t have won the election for sure. When the bill was signed we were at the beginning of the pandemic.

If they really wanted to do something with Google and Facebook, they should have introduced a digital tax. But they resigned. They received a lot of pressure from the United States two years ago, and then they decided to abandon this project. Mike Pence, the former US Vice President – during his visit to Warsaw in September 2019 – officially thanked Polish government for abandoning the idea of introducing the digital tax. They should’ve done that before – they could’ve done that, but they haven’t. All those explanations now, concerning helping healthcare, donating to the Fund for Monument Preservation, and so on – this is clearly a lie. If I’m allowed, I would call it bullshit. They are simply looking for some kind of reasonable explanation. But this is a lie. That’s my opinion.

Do you think that the protest and harsh criticism coming from the media, experts, the EU, and the US will cause the government to withdraw from the plan to further weaken the media? What can we expect now in your view?

The European Union could have been more vocal on that issue. I wish they had said more and used a little bit harsher words. Only reminding Polish government about the role of free media in democratic society is not enough. I’m not disappointed, that’s what I expected to hear from Brussels. I do hope there will be more. But regarding the critics from the United States, the reaction in Washington was far more clear than I’d expected. We had a very strong statement by Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the US Senate. That was a strong signal from such an important figure in US politics who said that Poland must rethink the introduction of this so-called advertisement tax. It was a very strong wording reminding Poland what democracy means, the value of the Polish-American alliance. That was huge. Also, the statement from the press secretary of the US State Department went very far. But before the change in Washington – before the election – we also had some criticism made by the State Department and by the US ambassador to Warsaw, Ms Mosbacher. When those critical opinions were formulated by the US officials, the Polish government immediately changed its mind regarding the Holocaust law, regarding some other laws, like the Uber law. They wanted to ban Uber in Poland and decided not to do so after talking to the US ambassador, after receiving a letter from her, if I remember correctly. And of course, Ms Mosbacher and the US State Department intervened a lot in favor of TVN, which was harassed by the Polish government and by the lawmakers from PiS. I believe that while European engagement is disappointing, the US support will help. They simply cannot ignore it.

Before returning to my question if it’s possible now for us to expect that PiS will withdraw from the idea of the tax, I will speak to the US context. The thing is – as you’ve said – after the US ambassador reacted, the Polish government withdrew from the harassment towards TVN, owned by the American Discovery. But now there is no US ambassador in Poland. So, let’s look at the timing, why now? Is the current interregnum on the US ambassador’s seat to blame?

No, I’d say that we should look at it in a broader context. It’s not about who is in charge of the US embassy. The chargé d’affaires, who is running the business here in Warsaw, is also powerful; he’s got a link to Washington. Maybe he wouldn’t send a letter to Prime Minister Morawiecki with demands, but still, he can intervene. A lot of dealings with the Polish government are being made not only by the ambassador himself or herself – whoever will be nominated – but by their deputies or other diplomats. I believe the Polish domestic debate is more important than developments in the USA.

Jarosław Kaczyński is now in charge of state security as Deputy Prime Minister and he made the course of this government towards any possible opposition more harsh and aggressive. Let’s not forget about his involvement in the attempted detainment of Mr Giertych; let’s not forget about his involvement in introducing the ban on abortion by the so-called Constitutional Tribunal of Judge Przyłębska; let’s not forget about his involvement in inciting police brutality during demonstrations against this abortion ban. It was Kaczyński who instructed police to be brutal toward the protesters. We witnessed an unbelievable degree of brutality of the police. They were attacking people with batons and spraying teargas. This is all Kaczyński. Now, he decided that also the media need to be shut off, and he uses the harshest measure that exists to attack the financial side of media business in Poland and to push the media to bankruptcy or to coerce them simply. That’s the point. So, Kaczyński is the key factor; his behavior, his – I would say – a bit maniac behavior, and his obsession about harsh dealing with any kind of opponents that he calls enemies. That’s the tragedy of this country.

You’ve also mentioned that the reaction from the European Union is too weak. So what in your opinion should be the response coming from Brussels? 

The freedom of media is a fundamental value of the European Union. That we know for sure. So when the Polish government dared to violate the rule of law, which is also a fundamental value of the EU, the reaction of Brussels was strong. Within a month, we got the Article 7 procedure opened. We got a lot of discussion about that and a lot of clear and even – I would say – audacious comments made by commissioners and other EU representatives. And now another fundamental rule of the EU is being violated because when all media would be on a short leash of the government or simply taken over by Orlen or other state-run companies, there will be no media freedom in Poland anymore. And we have no reactions, only some commentaries which are soft.

Ms Jourova said that she’d seen the black screens. Well, that’s no news, everybody saw them. Even some Indian outlets reported it. So, I would expect strong wording in the first place, and that then they would threaten the Polish government with another Article 7 procedure or another harsh measure.

Poland is not Hungary. This is not a small-sized country on the peripheries of Europe. This is an important member of this complex unity, which the EU is. And if there will be a total collapse of democracy and a total disrespect of European values, that would endanger the whole community, and they need to remember about that. I have a feeling that Ms von der Leyen is not aware of this threat. Maybe her German perspective makes it hard to be more demanding of Poland; maybe her German perspective makes it hard to push Poland too far. Maybe there’s a kind of a personal link. I’ve heard that there is some kind of friendship link between her and Mr Morawiecki, the Polish Prime Minister. She was elected because PiS supported her – the lawmakers from PiS in the European Parliament voted in favour of her candidature. Still, she must be aware of what will happen – that after they dismantled the independent judiciary in Poland, they will dismantle free media, and soon we will have a country run like an authoritarian state. That would be disastrous for the EU – having an authoritarian country in the heart of Europe.

So, finally, what will happen with the tax now and what can we expect for the media?

It all depends on what Mr Gowin will do, and probably he won’t support that. And it all depends on all those signals coming from Washington. If the Americans would simply say: no way, the government would withdraw. But that needs determination, not only from the media owners and people working in the media, but also determination among people who consume  the media. So, Polish readers, listeners, and viewers must join in, and support their journalists – the journalists who work for them every day, whose workplace and outlets are in danger now. That’s substantial. We need that support.