Even before being brought before parliament, the Polish government's planned new media law is already making headlines. Politicians have been speaking candidly about transforming the media to serve national interests.
Reporters Without Borders is sounding the alarm. The human rights organization says it is "extremely concerned" about events in Warsaw. It means the new Polish government's plans for media reform, although not officially introduced yet, are already the topic of much discussion. The group is worried that the goal of the reform could be to bring "the fourth estate" into line.
Polish public television, radio, and the Polish Press Agency (PAP) would be affected by the reform. Currently state-owned businesses, these outlets should in future no longer pay attention to profits, but rather concentrate on their "national mission." They will be re-named from "public" to "national" media, and instead of corporations, they'll be known as "national cultural institutes."
Following the national mission
According to Krzysztof Czabański, the responsible undersecretary at the culture ministry, "national mission" means that Polish history should be an important focus of programming in future. He added that the term "national interests" refers to content that speaks to the public’s sense of patriotism. Similarly, plans for education reform will put history on equal footing with subjects such as Polish or mathematics. Critics, on the other hand, say it is highly unlikely that critical journalistic views of Polish history will be broadcast on public television.
They also argue that conspiracy theories such as that surrounding the Smoleńsk plane crash will be more likely to be broadcast. Many in the governing party believe that the crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others was not an accident, but an attack.
The reform will also introduce new structures, such as the "National Media Council." Members of this council - to be appointed by the parliament and the president - will make decisions about content and hiring. "That makes the media subject to the parliamentary majority and the president, in other words, the organs that have a strong popular mandate," said Czabański.
It’s not the first time that politicians have exploited the Polish media. In 2007, when the Civic Platform assumed leadership, it filled leading positions in the media with its own people. Even prior to that, such nepotism was more the rule than the exception. The current Law and Justice Party (PiS) has sharply criticized such abuse. But that doesn't mean it plans to end it. "Politicians are responsible for the media not just in Poland, but in many other countries, and no one seems to have found a better solution," said Czabański.
Journalists under pressure
It appears that tough times are on the horizon for critically minded journalists. Those in the media who don’t toe the line are intimidated or suspended, as shown by the case of TV personality Karolina Lewicka. While interviewing Culture Minister Piotr Gliński, she asked him questions that he didn’t like. Eventually, the politician said on camera that he would no longer answer her questions, because the station was "broadcasting propaganda, and that would soon be over."
A talk show hosted by Tomasz Lis - one of Poland’s most famous journalists - has been canceled. The journalist is currently the target of a smear campaign. Czabański said the show was "not objective, biased, controlled and manipulated," and that the host was a "propaganda puppet." Even Poland’s intelligence service coordinator Mariusz Kamiński had something to say about Lis. "He stands for everything that is evil and is being financed with public funds by public television."
Better working conditions
"When politicians call journalists propagandists and threaten to fire them, that is basically the first step toward self-censorship," said the speaker of the country's television council, Katarzyna Twardowska. This can also be seen as consenting to aggressive behavior toward journalists, the council warned.
Recent events prove that there is real cause for alarm. At a demonstration of people loyal to the government, a small stuffed fox could be seen with a sign reading "Tomasz live." The fox was a play on the journalist’s surname Lis; the Polish word for fox is "List." Another person at the demo was seen holding up a "cage for the fox." At another demonstration, a reporter for Polish television was attacked. Demonstrators grabbed his microphone out of his hand, and threatened him on camera. Poland’s biggest private broadcaster, TVN, only sends its reporters to such events with a security team - conditions that are becoming familiar in Germany at Pegida demonstrations.
Hoping for better work
The pressure is more than some can stand. Journalists are already saying that self-censorship is taking hold among their colleagues. Young reporters are especially fearful about their futures following the "good transformation" promised by the government.
Many reporters and anchors in Polish television are self-employed; often they pay neither health insurance nor social security contributions. Hardly anyone is hired on a regular contract basis. When PiS talks about a "good transformation," it is also referring to such working arrangements.
But, paradoxically, it could be precisely this government that manages to secure better financing of public media. In theory, public broadcasters are financed by license fees. But people in Poland tend to resist paying the fees. Nine out of 10 households do not pay the 5 euros monthly for the use of their radios and televisions. Former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk is partly to blame. In 2008, he outraged the public when he spoke of an "archaic form of media financing, a kind of protection money." Tusk wanted to do away with the license fees, but he was unsuccessful. Tusk has since moved on, but he’s left the financing problems behind, said Czabański.
According to reports, the government is planning to pardon debts and introduce a new, lower license fee that every household will have to pay along with their tax declaration or energy bill. The fee would bring in roughly 400 million euros annually.
Measures against foreign publishers
Plans to reduce the number of foreign newspaper publishers in Poland are less certain. The measure is directed mainly at German publishers, who are very active in Poland. One member of the government spoke of "repolonizing" the country’s media landscape.
The reform plans are due to be presented by early January.