Poland makes a radical move to take a decisive grip on independent media.
By Krzysztof Bobinski, AEJ Poland and Polish Society of Journalists
A long-anticipated strategic move by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party to bring independent media to heel has now started, with the announcement of the planned purchase of Poland’s leading owner of regional newspapers by Orlen, a state controlled petro chemical giant. Polska Press is now owned by Germany’s Passauer capital group, and the company has dominated regional newspapers and magazines for over a quarter of a century.
The deal was announced on December 7 and has yet to be approved by Poland’s competition authority which is beholden to the government. But the deal, whose value has yet to be announced, is expected to be completed early next year. Polska Press owns 20 out of 24 regional newspapers, 120 local weeklies and has access to almost 15 million unique users on social media.
Orlen is listed on the Warsaw stock exchange and its sales last year were worth 111bn zlotys (25 bn euro) while Polska Press reported sales worth 400 mn zlotys in 2019. The government holds 27.5 per cent of the company’s stock, which gives the Law and Justice Party de facto control of Orlen.
The transaction has dismayed Poland’s independent media who generally see this as a first step in bringing the private media sector under government control. Speaker after speaker at Poland’s annual Grand Press Journalist awards warned of sackings at Polska Press and called the move a major blow against press freedom.
In reply Daniel Obajtek, the CEO of Orlen, said in a radio interview with the RMF FM radio station: „None of us will be editing texts” at Polska Press. Mr Obajtek insists that the purchase is part of his company’s retail strategy based on Orlen’s recent acquisition of the Ruch network of 1,300 newspaper kiosks which are to be modernised. He also notes that Polska Press’s unique internet users will play into these plans. What is certain is that such an internet network will be a major political prize in the light of elections coming up in three years time. Mr Obajtek is a loyal supporter of Law and Justice party president Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and Orlen regularly places adverts in publications which favour Law and Justice regardless of any marketing value they might have.
Over the past year the company has been building a media operation which will enable it to exert significant influence over Poland’s independent media sector. Orlen has bought Ruch, and last year established a media house which will plan and place state sector advertising in social and print media as well as manage the company’s press unit. The purchase of Polska Press also gives Orlen control of 6 printing works which produce other press publications thus giving the company sway over these still independent publications, too.
Recently Poland’s culture minister Piotr Glinski minister who is responsible for policy towards the media said that it ‘was quite possible state sector companies would be purchasing newspapers’ from foreign owners. This policy marks a shift from earlier statements that legislation would be introduced which would reduce foreign ownership in Polish media in the light of opposiition from the European Union and the United States to the possibility of more state controls over Poland’s private media sector.
However, Tomasz Rzymkowski, a Law and Justice member of parliament, has said in a newspaper interview „as soon as we conquer coronavirus…we will certainly concentrate on „re-polonising” the media. We must regulate the market in such a way so that it will not be dominated by foreign capital”. The government’s dream of exercising controls over Poland’s often critical independent media is coming closer to being realised.