The purchase of the media group by oil company Orlen, which is partially owned by the government, is a concern for dissidents and journalists.
The deal was announced on Monday in Germany's Passauer Neue Presse newspaper. "For strategic reasons, we have now decided to sell our Polish activities," said Alexander Diekmann, the managing partner responsible for the German media group Verlagsgruppe Passau's properties in Poland. He said the sale would allow his company to grow domestically within Germany.
Daniel Obajtek, the CEO of Poland's biggest oil company, Orlen, wrote on Twitter that the company was "taking over Polska Press," making it the owner of 20 of the 24 regional newspapers in Poland — as well as 120 regional weeklies and 500 news websites. Obajtek said this would give Orlen, which is 27.5% owned by the government, access to 17.4 million media consumers. That will help optimize marketing to attract new customers, he said.
In recent years, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has pledged to "re-Polishize" the domestic media. Right after PiS took power in 2015, the government started its crusade to bring the public media to heel.
Journalists who were critical of the government were dismissed or quit of their own accord. The next step was to take control of the private media outlets, the vast majority of which were owned by foreign companies. "States that count for something in the EU — and we want to be such a state — protect their market," PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said. "We have a situation that is completely wrong, and we should change it step by step, so that as many media outlets as possible become Polish, in keeping with the rules of civilized states."
PiS officials have alleged that foreign-owned media outlets in Poland are manipulated by politicians in Germany and United States and therefore produce material that is critical of the government. They are particularly irked by ownership of Polish media by German companies. The PiS officials says the media should be under Polish control — preferably state control. In line with this logic, which verges on conspiracy theory, some believe that Mark Dekan, CEO of Ringier Axel Springer Polska (RASP), which owns the Polish edition of Newsweek and the biggest daily tabloid, Fakt, has even offered "proof" of foreign influence in Polish media.
When former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was reelected as president of the European Council in 2017, Dekan wrote a letter to RASP employees saying this represented a defeat for Kaczynski and the "ideology of primitive manipulations." He called on journalists to explain to readers what needed to be done to stay in the "EU fast lane" — rather than to end up in the "parking lot."
Later, Axel Springer SE CEO Mathias Döpfner criticized Kaczynski in an article for Politico for the dismissal of journalists who were critical of the government from state media outlets. During the 2020 election campaign, President Andrzej Duda spoke of a "German attack" after an article in the daily Die Welt criticized the Polish government.
Polish-owned media outlets that are critical of the government have also come under pressure. The liberal newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, which is owned by a Polish media group, cannot be accused of being controlled from abroad, but life can be made difficult for the journalists who work there.
After the newspaper released dozens of reports about scandals and corruption, PiS and public prosecutors decided to take legal action against the paper in 2018 — demanding apologies and penalties of up to €12,000.
In 2017, the state broadcasting council fined the television channel TVN, which belongs to the US-owned Scripps Network, €350,000 for its critical live coverage of parliamentary proceedings. However, the fine was repealed after the US State Department urged Poland to respect press freedom.
Critics fear that the PiS will now try to consolidate its authority over the local and regional media with Orlen's takeover of Polska Press. Maciej Mrozowski, a professor at the SWPS University of Social Sciences and the Humanities, said there was a danger for "the freedom and pluralism of the media" in Poland. "There is a lot to indicate that this is a political decision, not a business one," he told the Wirtualna Polska portal. "Potential criticism will be neutralized and the instrumentalization of content will be enabled," he said.
Adam Bodnar, the national ombudsman for citizens' rights, told Wirtualna Polska that this was "a historic moment and, unfortunately, it shows that the authorities decided to take steps similar to those we could previously observe in Hungary under Viktor Orban." He said the transaction demonstrated what direction the ruling party was going in. "After full control of state media," he said, "now it's time for the private media."
Despite numerous declarations that the party would restrict foreign investments in the media sector through legal means, PiS has not yet succeeded in drafting a bill that would be in line with EU law and would not violate the free movement of capital. That leaves the option of encouraging trusted companies to purchase media — as Orlen has.
This article was translated from German.