1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Polish government goes too far

Magdalena Gwozdz-Pallokat
Magdalena Gwozdz-Pallokat
August 13, 2021

The government’s attack on the independence of private broadcaster, TVN, is just one among many moves slowly eroding democracy in Poland. But this time it’s a step too far, says DW’s Magdalena Gwozdz-Pallokat.

Demonstrators in Warsaw
Poland has seen demonstrations against the planned media bill targetting the US-owned TVN channelImage: STR/NurPhoto/imago images

For months, I have heard from those in power about how much freedom there is in my country, how pluralistic and independent the press is, and that the controversial media reform bill that has been passed by the lower house is meant to simply bring in rules in line with those that long exist in other countries, for example, in Germany.

Anyone who follows the state media in Poland, which has now become the government's mouthpiece, can sit back and breathe easy. The message is that everything is just fine and the country is making progress.

And what about those of us who work in the foreign media? Well, it's claimed we don't know anything at all about it, and we operate in bad faith. And, that applies especially to Germans.

Questions that speak volumes

In recent years, I have often been asked by my former colleagues (I worked for several years at the public broadcaster, TVP) how I could work for the German media. They want to know whether Chancellor Angela Merkel dictates what I am allowed to report. Unfortunately, I have never spoken to the chancellor in my life.

For many Poles, "German" is synonymous with "terrible. But actually, my ex-colleagues' questions reveal more about their own work ethic than the one I try to stay true to.

Four years ago, when Donald Trump visited Warsaw, I faced a lot of verbal abuse, and I was almost physically attacked when I reported with a DW microphone in my hand. It was said that we would only lie. And that brings us to the Americans. The US media group Discovery owns the largest private broadcaster in Poland, TVN. At least it still does.

Magdalena Gwozdz-Pallokat
Magdalena Gwozdz-Pallokat is DW's correspondent in WarsawImage: Mariusz Smolewski

Viewers of the TVN24 news channel, which belongs to the TVN network, are not as optimistic about the future as the followers of the influential public broadcaster, TVP, are. This is partly because the latter only reports on the government through rose-tinted glasses and has become an outlet for the ruling party's positions. But, also because TVN24 will probably soon cease to exist in its current form and with this owner.

 A calculated coalition crisis

A year and a half ago, TVN applied to renew its broadcasting license. But the permit failed to materialize and the old one expires next month. And with the law now passed in the lower house, Discovery, as the American owner, will fundamentally lose the right to operate a TV station in Poland. The Senate, as the second chamber of parliament, can still reject the decision, but it does not have the final say.

The leader of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), Jaroslaw Kaczynski, knew exactly what he was doing when, on the eve of the vote in the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, he allowed the dismissal of a member of the government who did not want to support the law.

Kaczynski must also have been aware that he did not need the votes of a coalition partner, the Agreement party (Porozumienie), in the vote on the new media law and that he could do it without them. Either he convinced others or possibly even "bought" them. It's like doing politics in a marketplace. The only difference is that this is not about apples or pears but about a fundamental right — the right of access to information.

In Poland today, a relatively large number of media outlets are owned by foreign companies. For Jaroslaw Kaczynski, it's an unacceptable state of affairs. He has demanded that Polish media be "Polish."

Last December, a German-run regional newspaper group was sold to the state-controlled oil company PLN Orlen, which is headed by a Kaczynski confidant. Jaroslaw Kaczynski called it "the best news in a long time.”

Attack on relations with the US

Following the decision by the lower house to pass the media law, it's hard to imagine how Kaczynski's PiS party will continue to prosper. The move is a direct attack on a specific media outlet and, more broadly, on the freedom of the press, and at the same time, it delivers a blow to the close economic and political relations with the US. It's all going a step too far.

There was a stormy and chaotic session of parliament during the bill's passage which led to an adjournment. The Pis party, however, in a daring maneuver, turned it into a dubious victory by calling a second vote in parliament. The move shows the limits that the Kaczynski system is now reaching.

Democracies can die quickly from a coup. Or slowly, like in Poland, when the foundations and institutions are being ridiculed, undermined and dismantled step by step. When there is no more press freedom, democracy dries up too. Then there is no longer any free choice, not even the choice of which button to press on the remote control.

This article has been translated from German