The politicisation of public media in Poland is complete. And although most private media outlets can still exercise their freedom of speech, they are then exposed to political attacks and financial problems. Journalists are the precarious victims of this situation.
The analysis was written as part of the project „A LOCKDOWN FOR INDEPENDENT MEDIA?„ coordinated by n-ost with the support of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Budapest.
How the pandemic impacted the Polish media landscape
Poland confirmed its first case of COVID–19 on March 4, which was followed by a massive public information campaign. In just a few days, before the number of infections had reached 20, Poles started to voluntarily self-isolate. A lockdown was announced on March 13, one day after the country’s first death from COVID–19.
As the number of cases began to rise sharply from mid-March, so too did readers’ demand for information. It can be explained with 2 mutually related reasons. Two IPSOS Mori studies conducted on March 9-10 and March 12-13 revealed that in just three days, the share of people concerned about the outbreak rose from 63 to 75 percent. Consequently, more Poles stayed at home and checked the situation online.
Some media, particularly print publications, struggled hugely under lockdown. Online media, in contrast, experienced a boom in readership. Both examples illustrate that the COVID–19 crisis has simply intensified many longer-term processes affecting the Polish media landscape.
Politicisation of the Polish media / financial censorship / index of prohibited press
What has not changed is the already high level of politicisation of Polish media, which has peaked over the past four years. By many accounts, since the end of 2015, state media networks – TV and radio – have turned into outright propaganda tools of the government, praising its leaders’ every move while presenting the opposition as enemies of the state. There is a budgetary dimension to this process;
state-owned companies withdrew their advertisements from critical media outlets
and took their business to those which attacked the opposition instead. In early 2016 there was also an attempt to limit the circulation of “unfriendly” titles on the premises of public institutions. A lawyer contacted for this report confirmed that such titles are not on the general list of available publications for subscription by courts in Poland.
Polish officials and state media continue to regularly verbally assault their critics in the media, with particular disdain aimed at Gazeta Wyborcza and the TVN24 news network. As a result, Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 Press Freedom Index ranked Poland 62nd out of 180 countries – its worst result yet. Poland had received its highest result – 18th place – in 2015. At the end of that year, PiS came to power.
Influence of COVID–19 on the press market
The crisis accelerated the development of the online sector at the expense of the print media. At the beginning of the pandemic, visits to news websites peaked, with a simultaneous massive reduction in sales of the print press, particularly of non-political titles such as lifestyle magazines.
Between March 9-15, Poland’s ten leading websites in the information and journalism category recorded a 57.4 percent rise in the number of users and a 137.5 percent rise in the number of page views compared to February 3 to March 1.
At the same time, sales of the vast majority of print titles fell this March in comparison to the same month last year. For example, sales of nationwide dailies fell on average by 15.5 percent and 12 percent for opinion weeklies. However, it must be noted that sales had also fallen in February, before Poland entered lockdown.
Reductions in print publications’ circulation was not the only hardship for publishing houses, which had increasingly come to depend on additional services (particularly conference planning) as a source of revenue. The pandemic cut off these additional sources of income. In March, the weekly Wprost decided to close its print edition and stick to online content, explaining that the pandemic had not only severely limited distribution but also made it impossible to organise events.
At the same time, the massive rise in online media consumption has not translated into a rise in advertising capacity.
Several media employees confirmed that some media houses have withdrawn advertisements, as their clients prefer not to be associated with difficulties posed by the pandemic (illness, death, layoffs, recession). Simultaneously, companies placing advertisements directly, such as soft drink producers or car companies, have suffered financially from the crisis or expect to, so reduced their advertising budgets.
As a result of their economic downturn, media outlets adapted their employment policies. In April some outlets – mostly print lifestyle magazines – closed down entirely (e.g. Logo, Podróże, Zdrowie). Others announced layoffs. Some resorted to cutting salaries (e.g. Agora reduced all employees’ pay by 20 percent and Polska Press by 15-20 percent) and limited their work with external authors. One editor compared news about the Polish media market to obituaries.
Advancing precarisation of journalism
Furthermore, some authors were startled to learn of retroactive cuts to fees, which they learnt about upon filing their work. These cuts, like others, were justified with reference to the pandemic; some journalists believe that media managers have used the crisis as a pretext to (further) deteriorate work conditions.
Cuts to correspondent jobs and reporting trips have become a sad reality, and work without a proper job contract the norm. Ordering texts and not publishing them – and not paying – is no longer an exception. Recurring layoffs – group and individual – reduce editorial teams while new hires are made for other sectors of publishing houses (IT, UX, and marketing). In short, journalism in Poland has become increasingly precarious, a fact most visible in online and print media. As Adam Leszczyński, a journalist for OKO.press and a professor at Warsaw’s SWPS University puts it, one angry precarious journalist can always be exchanged for another, for whom a job at a publication is remuneration enough.
Nevertheless, some publications did not make layoffs or cutbacks during the pandemic, even if they lost some sponsors. Rzeczpospolita and the publicly owned Polskie Radio even made official statements about no plan for staff reductions. The situation for most TV channels, especially news channels, even improved. Nielsen Ratings indicate that average time spent in front of the TV rose by half an hour this March compared to last year.
Imbalance on the Poland’s media market
The Broadcasting Act states in the Article 21 that: „Public broadcasting shall fulfil a public service mission by offering, on the terms laid down in the Act, diverse programmes (…) characterised by pluralism, impartiality, balance and independence”.
Nevertheless, the politicisation of public media, but also the political influence on the press market in Poland has been growing since the Law and Justice party came to power in 2015 and amended the law regulating the activities and structure of public media. Appointments to the public media outlets and supervisory institutions (KRRiT – the National Broadcasting Council and the National Media Council) are politicised. The consistently one-sided pro-government bias of the public media was even acknowledged by a study commissioned by the politicised National Broadcasting Council in 2017. The document’s analysis of TVP news programmes found that the channel’s content was too one-sided, noting that TVP1’s Teleexpress, a popular news roundup broadcast at 5PM, “gives the impression that Poland is a one-party country.” According to Gazeta Wyborcza, KRRiT hid this damning report until 2019.
Witold Kołodziejski, president of the National Broadcasting Council, says that pro-government media ensure balance for Poland’s broadcast media landscape, particularly in the broadcasting of its three biggest players: TVN, Polsat, and TVP. News programmes broadcast by the latter depict a reality very different from what major private news networks cover, overlooking information which is not convenient for the government in favour of praising its “achievements” and launching meticulously prepared attacks on the opposition.
Conspiracy theories and the US-Polish proxy conflict
Little could have changed in this regard over the course of the pandemic. Nevertheless, attacks on TVN (belonging to Discovery, Inc.) intensified. These became so pronounced that on April 17 the TV station finally issued a statement at the outset of its major evening news programme, Fakty, which remarked: “For several days now, although there are many important topics to cover, TVP has been spending a lot of time attacking our station and TVN journalists… We understand that nobody likes to be criticised, but we are not here to be liked by politicians or party presidents. Unlike state television, we are independent, also financially.” US Ambassador Georgette Mosbacher also reacted.
However, the recent presidential campaign was not the best time to soften the language of political debate, even if relations with Washington could have been at stake. Therefore, to no surprise, a former Law and Justice spokeswoman, now MEP Beata Mazurek tweeted: „Trzaskowski is afraid to debate with Poles. He prefers a staged debate at WSI 24 and German Onet. It is an example of contempt for voters from smaller towns. The residents of Końskie and Poles will soon issue a bill to him”. This tweet again mentions ‚enemies of the nation’, but it also insults TVN24, the television belonging to the American Discovery, Inc., by comparing it to WSI, i.e. military intelligence. In return she received a sharp reprimand from Ambassador Mosbacher – „You know very well that you are spreading something that is an absolute lie, suggesting that TVN is WSI. You should be ashamed of yourself. This is below the dignity of the person who represents Poles.” Now TVP is rationalizing the accusations of Mazurek, citing the words of Antoni Macierewicz, who pointed to the links between ITI and its creator Mariusz Walter and the military services of the People’s Republic of Poland.
Although the government presented data concerning the epidemiological situation in daily press announcements, reporting on the pandemic has varied widely.
Public media exclusively framed these data within success stories,
while privately owned and critical media usually broadcasted government’s press conferences with important context, mentioning irregularities or other data which shed a different light on the authorities’ actions.
On the rare occasions when public media did cover a misstep by the authorities, they did so with caveats. These were presented either as a consequence of the previous government’s inaction or mistakes, the fault of the EU or Germany, or placed alongside a success story in Poland or a comparatively worse situation elsewhere. All in all, failures were either presented as victories or became pretexts to attack “enemies of the state,” meaning the opposition, most private media, independent think tanks and NGOs, Germany, or the EU. The latter in particular was a popular target for Polish public media; in March, TVP’s news programme Wiadomości claimed that „Brussels hasn’t developed any effective methods to combat the epidemic… It helplessly throws up its arms and watches as the coronavirus takes a lethal toll among the Member States.” Although this line of attack has been voiced by government officials, it is based on a falsehood: the EU has no competence to regulate healthcare.
The government provided information about the pandemic on its official websites (the gov.pl domain noted a surge in popularity) and social media channels. Journalists were able to access most recent updates on infections and deaths relatively easily. Nevertheless, independent media outlets, the opposition, and health specialists have accused the government of hiding the real figures for infections and deaths, arguing that it has tried to avoid responsibility by attributing COVID–19 fatalities to pre-existing conditions.
The pandemic coincided with the pre-election campaign for the presidential vote, which was due to be held on May 10. The government invoked the pandemic on April 6 when it passed unconstitutional amendments to electoral laws, criticised by the OSCE, enabling an election to be held as soon as the authorities please. It is widely agreed that this consideration was why the government did not announce a state of emergency.
The pandemic has changed how newsrooms function. COVID–19 started to dominate the news agenda in March; by the end of May the majority of news content was devoted to the pandemic and related issues. Media critical of the government focus on social distancing measures and scandals, such as those surrounding state purchases of medical equipment. However, other topics are starting to surface again, including optimism about the ending of restrictions.
Most print and online media workers, and not just journalists, have had to work remotely from home. Some publications’ staff had gotten used to this format well before the pandemic, but for others,
the easing of lockdown measures allows them to return to their offices to reset their lost work-life balance.
Some media companies had to resort to state aid, limiting working time and salaries by 20 percent. Still, according to journalists, the actual working day did not get any shorter. Some contracted reporters say that they worked more than before the pandemic.
In order to keep distance at work, TV employees were separated into small teams that worked together in shifts. Journalists from TVN24 and Polsat News report that they had fewer shifts per month, but that these shifts were longer and more intensive than before. On average these employees worked a little less than before the pandemic, but retained their salaries and gained all-day catering at work. Meanwhile, radio stations sent many of their journalists to work from home, providing them with profes- sional equipment to guarantee good quality broadcasts.
The media market in Poland – and the world – will continue to shift online. Print publications will continue to close, which will translate into pay cuts and layoffs. Publishers will stake their businesses on cornering a growing online market; retaining a print title will soon become more a matter of prestige than of revenue.
The COVID–19 lockdown has also proven that media workers can be at least as effective from home as from their offices, accelerating newsrooms’ transition online.
Repolonisation and decentralisation
Law and Justice’s (PiS) first tenure in 2015 started with the change not only of judicial system, but also of the public media structure and its structural politicization. Now, straight after the presidential elections the second instalment of this process is happening.
„Media in Poland should be Polish” – Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the Law and Justice (PiS) said in the first interview after the 2020 presidential elections. In line with that statement, he also confirmed that the works on the new repolonisation/deconcentration of the media law are already underway. Its aim is to ward off foreign from the Polish media market after likening their criticism to foreign powers’ striving to influence sovereign democratic processes in Poland. The new laws will mostly focus on German shareholders on the Polish media market – especially against Ringier Axel Springer Polska, a Swiss-German owner of outlets that are both influential and critical of the government, especially Onet.pl, Newsweek Polska, and the biggest tabloid Fakt, and also against Polska Press, a member of the German Verlagsgruppe Passau, that holds the nation-wide network of 20 regional dailies.
Apart from deconcentration/repolonisation, now we can expect also that:
- Public companies will stop publishing ads in the independent media, not only Gazeta Wyborcza (but also, above all, Polityka, Fakt, Rzeczpospolita, etc.)
- Further power grab – PiS cannot have more power over the public media, the only way to go is to take over further titles. Taking away the media from their foreign stakeholders, an act branded as repolonisation and deconcentration, will worsen their financial situation and make them an easy pray for public companies. Or will just gradually let them die.
In the interview for Polskie Radio 1 (public radio) on July 19, 2020, Kaczyński said he wouldn’t want to wait with the deconcentration reforms throughout the next parliamentary term (3 years) and that he hopes the reforms will be carried out soon. “We will manage to do this much faster, at least on the legislative level, but this process’ success is tied to many changes that we have to bring about in our country,” Kaczynski said.
Summary: Situation of public media and media market in Poland
In general, the Polish government did not need to take advantage of COVID–19 restrictions to gain an advantage over the press. That was achieved well before; simply put, the politicisation of state media cannot progress any further in Poland. It has been completely subordinated to the interests of the PiS government. The only way for the national broadcaster to reclaim its role and rediscover the mission of public media is to achieve political independence; that can only be achieved with a change of government. Nevertheless, after the experience of recent years, Poland’s public media will need extensive structural reforms to guarantee its independence from any political interference.
The only way for PiS to expand its present grip over much of the media would be to stage takeovers of private media outlets, which the planned deconcentration and recolonisation law will facilitate. In 2018 the owner of Polsat TV, the billionaire Zygmunt Solorz, agreed to make concessions to PiS concerning content on his network. It was widely believed in media circles that Solorz had agreed to surrender editorial independence due to fears that he could face financial difficulties if his media outlets became too critical. Moreover, in 2019 Newsweek Polska reported that PiS politicians had proposed a sum well above market value to take over the country’s largest private TV channel TVN from Discovery Inc. The COVID–19 pandemic has disrupted these plans, but once the EU’s multiannual financial framework is finally decided, the Polish authorities may find themselves with further funds to realise this aspiration. However, attacks on TVN by the pro-government TVP eventually compelled the US ambassador to publicly defend the channel and its American owner.
Recent events do not give cause for optimism. In early May, under the guise of social distancing rules, two journalists from Gazeta Wyborcza and OKO.press were accused of violating social distancing restrictions while covering a protest outside PiS leader’s Jarosław Kaczyński’s house in Warsaw. They faced fines of up to 60,000 PLN.
Poland’s public media “acts almost exclusively as the mouthpiece of the government and of President Andrzej Duda, who is seeking another term,” reads a Reporters Without Borders press release from June 24. Indeed, a report by Press-Service Monitoring Mediów for June found that 97 percent of all mentions of Duda on the Wiadomości news programme were positive; his opponent, Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, received 31 percent fear mentions, out of which 87 percent were negative. In the end Trzaskowski lost by the smallest margin in the era of free presidentials in Poland – a difference of just 422 thousand. A good result given the above-explained asymmetry of the media landscape.
Most private media outlets in Poland can still exercise freedom of speech. However, they have to contend with political attacks and financial woes if they do so. Journalists are precarious victims of this situation. Without a missionary zeal, it is hard to see how professionalism can thrive in circumstances where journalists are deprived not only of a decent wage, but – all too often – of respect.
Karolina Zbytniewska / Editor-in-chief at EURACTIV Poland / Expert in European affairs
Population: 38.4 million (June 2019 estimate) Prime Minister: Mateusz Morawiecki (PiS), since December 2017
Government: Informal coalition government known as the “United Right,” led by the right-populist Law and Justice (PiS), with the right-wing United Poland (SP) and centre-right Agreement party.
Largest political daily newspapers:
Gazeta Wyborcza (circulation 135,294, average for first quarter of 2020), very critical of the government, centre-left (majority owned by the Polish Agora SA)
Rzeczpospolita (circulation 45,843), moderately critical of the government, centrist (owned by the Polish Gremi Media SA)
Dziennik Gazeta Prawna (circulation 43,516), impartial towards the government, centrist (owned by the Polish Infor Biznes SA)
Largest political weeklies:
Polityka (circulation 126,939), critical of the government, centre-left (owned by the Polish Polityka cooperative)
Newsweek Polska (circulation 124,372), critical of the government, centrist (owned by Ringier Axel Springer Polska (RASP), part of the Swiss Ringier Axel Springer Media Group)
Sieci (circulation 87,275), supportive of the government, centre-right (owned by the Polish Fratria SP)
Largest online newspapers:
Onet.pl (UU/month: 11,082,352), somewhat critical of the government, neutral stance (owned by Ringier Axel Springer Polska (RASP), part of the Swiss Ringier Axel Springer Media Group)
WP.pl (UU/month: 10,074,282), balanced towards the government, neutral stance (owned by Polish Wirtualna Polska Holding S.A.)
Tvn24.pl (UU/month: 9,378,050), critical of the government (owned by the American Discovery Inc.) Wyborcza.pl (UU/month: 6,540,308), very critical of the government, centre-left (majority owned by the Polish Agora SA)