Poland: publishers and journalists suffer in state advertising switch

by Jane Whyatt
Since the Polish people elected the Law and Justice (PiS) party government in the autumn of 2015, many magazines and newspaper publishers feel they are being censored – not through political interference, but by the decisions of state-owned companies to advertise only in publications that back PiS.

Polish newspaper Polish newspaper (photo: Whyatt/ECPMF)

That’s the view of Jacek Wojtaś, the EU Affairs Co-ordinator of the Polish Chamber of Press Publishers.The chamber represents the interests of publishers of both newspapers and magazines and is the only organisation in Poland that represents both.

Here’s an extract from ECPMF’s interview with Wojtaś:

Jacek Wojtaś: The govt uses certain tricks to support the titles that support them. They have small circulation but they get much much much more than all other titles in advertising for state owned companies. And even private companies sometimes ... the people are forced to take their advertising campaigns to those who support the govt.

For example, the weekly Politika has lost more than one hundred thousand euros a month (half a million zloty) in advertising revenue.

It seems to be legal because every advertiser can decide for himself. On the other hand, if a big state company goes to titles with very little circulation it is actually acting against itself as a company and that should be illegal. But no court will do it.

What effect do you think the pressure from the European Union has had on the Polish government?

I’d hoped it would have had a stronger impact. But due to the crisis in the European Union it can be really very very difficul. Of course the possibility to give some sanctions, to move some money that is promised to go to Poland which is really needed for new roads, for hospitals – if this would be limited it would be a disaster for the country. And I’m not sure it would really change people’s thinking. Because it’s far away. And the government uses all those arguments about Brexit, about Greece, about the crisis in Italy. Germany as a country is accused of everything bad and they even refer to the second world war so it’s still an argument – a very populistic one – but it’s used very often. There were some criticisms made by Martin Schulz (President of the European Parliament and a German national) and other German politicians. They referred to what happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve when girls and women were molested by foreign people and they say‚ first Germany must solve its own problems and they should not intervene in our state politics.’ They are also against Russia. We are still a very small country, not very influential in Europe, a poor country as well ... and do we want to compete with Germany, Russia, the United States? It’s better to co operate with them instead of fighting against them, alone.

But the PiS government would say that they were elected by a large majority so they are acting on behalf of the nation ... they have the mandate, so they are entitled to change the law and the constitutional tribunal.

That’s what they say. They achieved a simple majority. But I am afraid that the third instance of the court would be the Minister of Justice as the main prosecutor. He is allowed to say that the decision of the court at the second instance is wrong and he can change it. For the new police law - on phone tapping - that could happen to this law too. That is very dangerous. What is worse, all lists of numbers you have on your phone or laptop can already be collected, credit card transactions, bank account numbers. They collect this already. They can achieve a two third majority and so they can change the constitution. They could even vote that they are elected for life! Then we will have to go to the streets again.

Are the protests on the streets continuing?

Educated people disagree with the new changes. But more than half of the citizens are happy with the new government. They do not think about the constitution or the police law. They are just happy to get money for each child. The government promised it and they do it: each family gets 125 euros per month for the second, third and fourth child and so on. And if the family income is less than 200 euros they also get it for the first child. And now instead of being so powerless, living in poverty they are rich. They use this money to buy cars, mobile phones – the best on the market – not for their children! Lots of them also use this money for their own pleasure and alcohol.

So although we have a group that’s getting bigger and bigger, it’s still a minority.

I know PiS has a slogan: ’It’s a good change’. Are there any ways in which the change has been good for publishers?

Only for those titles that are supporting the government, nothing else. We try to inform the whole of Europe about it. But the government also argues that this is a state thing and the European Union should not intervene, especially as they have their own problems! We try to survive. There are still good titles investing not only in print but also in digital. But smaller titles that try to criticise the government – as they did also two, three, five years ago because they play the watchdog and it doesn’t matter who is in power. But PiS would like to eliminate them. There are some ideas of “ re-polonisation“ of regional newspapers.

Re-polonisation - what does that mean?

The foreign capital that was given at the beginning, supporting media activity, will be bought by the government using state money. They may be forced to leave the country, as they did in Russia. These are Polish companies with foreign capital. In the 1990s lots of capital came from Germany. It was used to buy new technology. But the titles are still edited in the Polish way and the independence of editors is very huge. The owners of the companies have almost no influence on what is written. I cannot understand while there is still this untrue argument that publishers and journalists are on two opposite sides and are enemies. Exactly the same situation concerns them both. If the publisher gets more money and feels secure then the journalist gets a good salary and the journalist’s job is safe. Otherwise it doesn’t work.

You’ve mention the economic pressures ... what about political pressure?

Officially we do not know such cases. But unofficially, people unwanted by the government lost their jobs, especially in the public broadcaster – lots of them, several hundred at least and they are not stopping yet. They now hire only people who- due maybe to their financial situation – will fulfill all the wishes of the new government. So it is the state radio, state television, which is now used as a propaganda tool. Thank God we still have some private TV companies that deliver more true news and information. They also have foreign capital. We know that some state-owned companies were looking for possibilities to buy stakes in Agora (the publisher of Gazeta Wyborczka) in order to have a majority shareholding and decide what will be printed. But they didn’t succeed.

How hopeful are you for the future of Polish media?

I am an incorrect optimist and I still think very positively that the new government must be changed at the next election if they do not succeed in changing the constitution. Then I have my passport always with me and I shall be forced to leave. But I don’t want to leave Poland, my country.

In defence of the reforms, Poland’s Prime Minister Beata Szyldo has told the European Parliament that the proposed constitutional changes are in line with EU norms, and that how Poland organises its public service broadcasting is an internal matter.

“Sometimes in Poland, we hear voices; voices that hurt, voices which are unfair, that are unjust to Poland and the Polish government. It is possible that these voices speak out of a lack of information, or possibly even bad will,” she said.

Szyldo added that “changes we carried out reflect EU standards and in no way differ from standards in other EU states.”

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