Vienna/ Warsaw. June 16, 2021
by Edward Steen, Secretary-General
Among the many entreaties on board Air Force One when President Biden turned up in Brussels yesterday was a toughly-worded letter repeating what the AEJ has tried to hammer home for years, and especially since the PiS (Law and Order) government takeover of the Polish state media in January 2016: without independent media European democracies will wither on the vine. There was at least a trace of that understanding in the US-EU joint statement.
Camouflaged autocracy/ dictatorship has inflicted untold cultural damage on Poland, but not just there: see Freedom House report 2020-02 , and there has been AEJ correspondence, over years, with Noel Curran, Irish head of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) since 2017, about the creeping but flagrant hollowing-out of the Polish media. Proclaiming a commitment to “strengthening and supporting independent, trusted news”, the EBU has however produced no discernible results since a first meeting with senior Polish officials in January 2016. See in this connection the EBU’s commitment to Article 10 of the Charter of Human Rights.
I am curious to learn what will come of the similarly earnest statements of intent at the recent meeting of Council of Europe culture ministers in Nicosia and their “roadmap” to protect journalists in the digital age.
Defying manipulations of state media
What does a government takeover of state media actually look like? Along with colleagues from the Polish Society of Journalists, the AEJ’s chairman in Warsaw, Krzysztof Bobinski, monitored media coverage of a significant mayoral election on Sunday (June 13).
Rzeszów is a vibrant city with economic ambitions which have seen the population steadily growing in recent years – unlike any other Polish city except Warsaw – to almost 200,000, half of them under 30, and with 60,000 students. In 2014-2020 it styled itself, in the modern, technocratic style, Rzeszów capital of innovation”. Unlike other large cities in Poland, it and its surrounding region are strongly pro-government. That looks like coming to an end.
Despite a barrage of state media pressure, Konrad Fijołek, a 44-year-old London-educated marketing man who represented the opposition, won a solid 56.7 % of the 54 % turnout.
Ewa Leniart, also 44, and formerly the local MP, now again voivode (governor) of the region, enjoyed the powerful support of Jarosław Kaczynski, founder-leader of the ruling Law and Justice party. But she scored only 23.6 %.
Monitoring of the local state-controlled radio and TV found these devoted around half the total election coverage to the PiS candidate at the expense of her three rivals.
The election came after the sudden resignation of Tadeusz Ferenc, 82, mayor since 2002.
A dry run for a media putsch in 2023?
This local election was the first test for GC Nowiny, a regional newspaper recently taken over by PKN Orlen, a state-owned petrol company that earlier this year bought 20 regional newspapers from the German-owned Polska Press and kicked out editors critical of the government. The move further consolidated the progressive strangulation of the independent press and the government takeover of state media in 2016.
These regional titles are now being groomed to play a role in helping PiS win urban centres in local government elections due in 2023.
The local paper devoted a full 40% of GC Nowiny’s election coverage to Ewa Leniart, though that did not appear to help either.
As for the local state-controlled TV station, it led its main daily newscast with items on La Leniart almost every day and devoted half its political coverage to the PiS candidate during the two weeks of election monitoring.
Such support for government candidates by public service media explicitly contravenes Polish law. But national TVP’s main evening news also made sure Ms Leniart got mentioned most days, again to no avail. Such slanted coverage has been in place since 2016.
The local election in Rzeszów was then typical. However, the failure of PiS in the city raises the question of whether PiS can build a winning coalition in future elections by continuing to abuse state media in this way.
On the face of it, it consolidates their core vote but fails to appeal to the undecided voters (some possibly bored to the point of indifference, so not voting at all) needed for an outright majority.
As I remember it, this was not the vibrant free society the great, peaceful Solidarity revolution of 1980 was supposed to deliver.