Poland’s diverse media is being quieted. A US-owned TV network may go next.

Poland’s diverse media is being quieted. A US-owned TV network may go next.

Roman Bosiacki/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters

Activists holding signs with the logo of the TVN Group rally in defense of media freedom and against a bill that would strengthen a ban on firms from outside Europe owning Polish broadcasters – like TVN – in Bydgoszcz, Poland, Aug. 12, 2021.

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September 8, 2021

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Poland’s governing Law and Justice party (PiS) has spared no effort whittling down a once-robust media landscape. After consolidating its control of the state broadcast media, it has embarked on a campaign of “repolonization” of private media using licensing laws, tax legislation, and attacks against journalists.

Now it is targeting the American-owned Polish TV network TVN, which offers a worldview that sharply conflicts with that of the right-wing government.

Why We Wrote This

A diverse media landscape is critical to a functioning democracy. But Poland’s government has been quieting dissenting voices, with its next target a big one: an American-owned TV network.

Popular with youth and educated elites in the larger cities of Poland, TVN programming offers a socially liberal worldview and – crucial to the functioning of a democratic society – shells out government criticism. A media reform bill – under consideration this week by the Senat, Poland’s upper house of parliament – would ban foreign possession of media.

“This is a key pillar in that media ecosystem, so if it can fall to government meddling and interference then essentially any other outlet can fall,” says Jamie Wiseman, advocacy officer at the International Press Institute in Vienna. “It’s also backed by U.S. money, which is incredibly influential in the country, so if PiS can succeed here, then no other independent media is safe.”

Warsaw, Poland; and Basel, Switzerland

When journalist Jacek Pałasiński moved to Warsaw about 15 years ago in the heyday of private Polish television network TVN, Poland was laying down the foundations of a diverse media landscape.

“The atmosphere was phenomenal,” says Mr. Pałasiński of the network’s TVN24, Poland’s first native news channel. “We had a sense of mission; we were creating this station for society. It was a dream place to work.”

The mood has changed.

Why We Wrote This

A diverse media landscape is critical to a functioning democracy. But Poland’s government has been quieting dissenting voices, with its next target a big one: an American-owned TV network.

Today, TVN is in the crosshairs of the Polish government, dominated by the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), which came to power in 2015. A media reform bill – under consideration this week by the Senat, Poland’s upper house of parliament – would ban foreign possession of media, like TVN’s U.S.-based ownership. Dubbed Lex TVN, it could force the network to divest its ownership and cost the TVN24 news station its license.

“The media law is directed against TVN; there is absolutely no doubt about that,” says Mr. Pałasiński, now retired after hosting his own show on TVN for 15 years. “Now at TVN24 there is this terrible focus on not saying one word too many. There’s a lot of self-control; everything has to be documented from three sources because of the political pressure.”

Poland’s dominant party has spared no effort whittling down a once-robust media landscape. After consolidating its control of the state broadcast media, PiS has embarked on a campaign of “repolonization” of private media using licensing laws, tax legislation, and attacks against journalists. The prospect has raised fears that Poland is trying to mimic the media market capture strategies pioneered in Vladimir Putin’s Russia and polished in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.

The Discovery network is fighting back by setting up a presence in the Netherlands and vowing legal action based on a 1994 U.S.-Polish bilateral investment agreement. With an estimated worth of over $1 billion, the network represents the single largest U.S. investment in Poland, a NATO ally, and it offers a worldview that sharply conflicts with that of the right-wing government. Removing it would lessen scrutiny on the government and deliver a blow to the opposition.

Kuba Stezycki/Reuters

TVN24, whose studio is shown here, is one of the few major broadcast channels in Poland where criticism of the Polish government, led by the Law and Justice party, can still be publicly heard.

“This is a key pillar in that media ecosystem, so if it can fall to government meddling and interference then essentially any other outlet can fall,” says Jamie Wiseman, advocacy officer at the International Press Institute in Vienna. “It’s also backed by U.S. money, which is incredibly influential in the country, so if PiS can succeed here, then no other independent media is safe.”


Tiny Home Village offers path out of homelessness
A stronghold for independent journalism

Popular with youth and educated elites in the larger cities of Poland, TVN programming offers a socially liberal worldview and – crucial to the functioning of a democratic society – shells out government criticism. There is no shortage of polemic topics to address. Poland is at odds with the European Union over LGBT issues, rule of law, and press freedom.

“The group’s encrypted satellite TVN24 channel has become one of the last strongholds for independent journalism and a forum for the opposition,” says Tadeusz Kowalski, a journalism professor at the University of Warsaw.

“It’s the one major place where Poles can still access critical coverage and hear the views of opposition politicians and parties, can see investigative reports that wouldn’t be reported by pro-government media, and can hear about government scandals,” concurs Mr. Wiseman of the International Press Institute.

Contrast that with the evolution of Poland’s public broadcasters under PiS. Previous governments – on both sides of the political spectrum – had influence on the public broadcasters’ political leanings, but state media professionals could uphold journalist standards. Not anymore.

When former public TV presenter and journalist Maciej Orłoś, travels to smaller towns, government supporters still ask him where they can watch him now. The answer is online – one of the few spaces where independent media still thrives in the Central European nation that has taken a nose-dive in press freedom rankings.

After working for 25 years at the public television network TVP, Mr. Orłoś now runs his own programs on YouTube and Facebook. Relinquishing the spotlight, he explains, was a decision driven by his refusal to be an instrument of government propaganda that has become so aggressive it reminds him of the communist era.

“I did not think that we would ever experience such manipulation in the democratic Poland, which is a member of the EU,” Mr. Orłoś says. “What happens in the public media is … scandalous … sowing the language of hatred, deepening divisions in the society, not applying journalistic principles.”

Media freedom advocates and political analysts agree with him that TVP became a government mouthpiece spouting the conservative values of the PiS. Under its governance, Poland fell from its highest ranking – 18th –  in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index in 2015, to 64th out of 180 countries last year.

Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters

Lawmakers attend a session of the parliamentary commission on an amendment to Lex TVN that would strengthen a ban on non-European firms controlling Polish broadcasters, in Warsaw, Poland, Aug. 11, 2021.

“These ideas and values are in short: God, honor, homeland, Catholic faith, Catholic church, family,” explains Mr. Orłoś, who left TVP in 2016. “[And there is] the national, patriotic theme: saying that we Poles are great, important, and nobody will tell us what to do, especially not the EU.”

That narrative creeps into the entertainment on TVP as well. Invited to participate in TVP’s “Ten to One” quiz show, Adam Miśkiewicz, a young engineer, wore a small pin on his jacket with a heart and a rainbow flag – symbol of the LGBTQ community, which has been subject of a government crackdown.

He says he was pressured to remove it on the dubious grounds that the pin could be interpreted as advertising for the Polaroid company. “I took off the pin, because the atmosphere was getting unpleasant,” Mr. Miśkiewicz says. “There is a kind of pre-programmed attitude among TVP employees that there are things that absolutely cannot be aired, such as the LGBT symbol.“

Mr. Miśkiewicz says he and his friends tune into TVP only to laugh at the government propaganda. But the anti-LBGTQ rhetoric aired on public media has taken a heavy toll on his personal life. His parents, both PiS voters, are still struggling to accept his sexual orientation.

“The PiS message they succumb to is that homosexuality is the destruction of the family,” he says. “If an equality march is shown on television, it is shown through the prism of nude perverts who want to terrorize” and sexually abuse children, he says. “My parents have never been to [an equality] march; they don’t see what it looks like, [so] they succumb to this message.”

What’s next?

The media reform bill has sparked dozens of protests and become a flashpoint of political debates – even splintering a minor partner from the ruling coalition. And even if it is passed, it is not clear that it aids in bolstering the protections cited to justify it. Backers say it will make the nation safe from foreign influence and disinformation, pointing to the threat of Russia and China (even if a U.S.-owned channel is most impacted).

But “there are already many other safeguards that guarantee this safety,” says Kuba Karyś, a leader of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), a pro-European-values civic group. “If TVN constituted a threat to the safety of the state, it would have its license revoked. This is purely a political fight.”

“This argument follows the basic populist rhetoric about external enemy and internal elites used by PiS since the presidential campaign in 2015,” says Joanna Maria Stolarek, director of the Warsaw office of the German think tank Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.

The successful passage of the bill is hardly assured. The Senat is expected to object to the media bill and – more crucially – PiS-endorsed President Andrzej Duda has suggested he would veto the bill. PiS, according to analysts, could cobble together enough votes to override the Senat if the bill returns to the lower chamber. But it lacks the supermajority needed to override a presidential veto.

“If the bill is blocked even now Law and Justice will be looking for another pretext to silence the independent media,” warns Mr. Pałasiński.

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Mr. Karyś is more optimistic, noting that the fate of TVN has triggered a wider debate about press freedoms, sparked protests in over 100 cities, and brought opposition parties together. The battle is nothing short of existential.

“The world is woven of narratives. ‘Something that has not been said does not exist,’” he says, quoting Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk. “If we deprive people of information that is important for political and social life, they will cease to exist.”

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