Poland: tracking the shrinking space for press and media freedom

By Wojciech Gąsior and Magdalena Wnuk

Since 1989, Poland’s open parliament (Sejm) was supposed to stand for open democracy. It has been one of more transparent legislatures in Europe, rivalled only by the European Parliament and the Swedish Riksdag. Journalists enjoyed almost unlimited freedom: only the plenary room was off-limits during the sessions. The media would then take up their positions in the gallery overlooking the assembly. Many politicians complained about, and took action against, the ever-present cameras and reporters, but none did so quite as doggedly as the Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Poland: tracking the shrinking space for press freedom Warsaw newsstand, 2016. Photo: Jane Whyatt

As soon as the PiS came to power at the end of 2015, all that changed. The corridor running alongside the assembly and the adjacent room where politicians and journalists could meet in a less formal environment were closed off to the media. “The changes have been introduced at the request of MPs in order to improve security”, announced the parliamentary media office.

It was not the first time that PiS locked the door to the parliamentary foyer. In 2007, during the previous two-year-long reign of Jarosław Kaczyński’s party, they did the same. The decision was revoked later that same year after PiS had lost the elections and the Speaker’s chair to Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform.

December 2015: PiS restricts access to parliament

The biggest blow to the media under PiS, so far, came shortly before the closing of the parliamentary foyer in December 2015. At the beginning of the month, PiS introduced a bill that abolished the transparent contests for candidates for media boards of directors. Instead, the authority to nominate directors was given directly to the Treasury Minister. Following the Act, the terms of office of the previous media boards expired and new boards were appointed. New managers changed the public media’s programming and editorial priorities. Over 140 journalists were fired. Some were dismissed due to disciplinary action or because their programmes were taken off the air and some of them chose to resign in protest against the changes.

PiS has never been a party to take criticism in its stride, but since their second rise to power in 2015, its leaders have taken an even harder line with the media. It wasn’t just the laws that had changed, it was also the ruling party’s attitude. In the first months of their term, getting interviews and quotes on uncontroversial or technical subjects was a simple matter, and the PiS’s media office was quick to facilitate them. But in the autumn of 2016, the office became unco-operative without giving any reason for the change in their behaviour.  

Summer 2016: PiS devises “apolitical” public media

In June 2016, phase two of the takeover of the public media began. A new organ was created - the National Media Council. It took over the Treasury’s duties in supervising the former ‘public service broadcaster’ which from then on  became ‘national’ media - a distinction which makes a difference. The Council appointed Jacek Kurski, a former PiS MEP and spin doctor, as the director of the Polish public television. “I want the public television to unite the Poles”, said Mr Kurski after receiving the appointment.

By then Kurski had already been in the job for almost half a year following the Treasury’s decision. During his short time at the helm, the station had taken a sharp turn to the right and let itself be known to be unabashedly pro-government. Its flagship news programme “Wiadomości” (”Messages” in English) had begun to employ Kurski’s staple blend of political propaganda infused with personal attacks on political opponents and their families.

“The changes we are beginning to implement are an attempt at making the public media in Poland apolitical and unbiased once again

claimed Polish prime minister Beata Szydło in the European Parliament during a plenary debate about the state of democratic freedoms in Poland. 

In September 2016, the term of office of the constitutional body responsible for protection of the press and freedom of speech expired, and its members were replaced by the parliament where PiS holds a majority and by the president, a former PiS member. 

December 2016: budget passed behind closed doors

At the end of 2016 the speaker of the parliament announced his plans to “re-organise the work of the media in the parliament” which, in fact, meant re-locating most journalists away from the main building where the sessions and most committee meetings are held. Only a single reporter from each news outlet was to be allowed entry to the main building after first having to receive a special permit. Both the media and the parliamentary opposition vociferously protested against the plans.

This led to the most serious parliamentary crisis in years. When an opposition member made a flippant joke from the stand, the PiS speaker excluded him from the proceedings. In response, MPs from two opposition parties blocked the stand, preventing the session from moving forward, until their colleague was be reinstated.

It was then that PiS decided to move the proceedings to another room. Guards were placed at the doors blocking access for the media and only allowing opposition MPs to use an entrance further away from where the speaker was sitting, to prevent them from tabling motions.

That night, the 16th of December, was the ruling party’s last chance to pass the budget for 2017 before the Christmas break, and they decided that there would be no more delays. The budget was finally passed around midnight, with the media standing outside the room seeing nothing but guards lined up by the door.

A couple of hours later, all journalists remaining in the building were asked to leave. They joined hundreds of protesters who had gathered outside in defence of press freedom. The parliament remained closed to the media for the following three days, and the parliamentary gallery for 23 more days.

2017: space for journalists in parliament shrinks again

To this day, there is no clear proof that the vote was legally binding. For that to happen, PiS needed at least half of all the MPs to cast a vote. It would take only five PiS deputies not to be present for the vote to fall through. Was this the case? In the absence of the media, all we have to go on are grainy video recordings from parliamentary cameras and the word of PiS members who manually counted the votes.

“There are official parliamentary recordings which confirm that the MPs were in the room” we were told by a PiS MP, Michał Dworczyk. “However, there is something even more important: written declarations of the MPs, and based on those, we may be certain that there was a quorum. To question those declarations would be to accuse MPs of lying” he said. The declarations have not been made public nor made available to the press.  

In the face of the public outcry, the plans to permanently banish most journalists from the parliament were abandoned, but when we returned to work we realised that the space for the media had shrunk some more. One of the passages leading to the room where the controversial vote on the budget took place was blocked with an improvised board. Access to the parliamentary gallery was also forbidden. That meant that journalists were not allowed to see or film opposition MPs who, as a sign of protest, remained in the plenary room. Even the door leading to a small corridor next to the so called “press tables” had been locked.

In the summer of 2017, PiS took a swing at the judiciary which brought hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets of Polish cities. The day after a heated plenary debate on 20 July, the parliament was locked once again. 

Autumn 2017: another lockdown?

Next on the PiS agenda came a major media law that is designed to tackle the concentration of (mostly foreign) capital in the media. With the bill, the government is taking aim at the biggest media companies such as Agora, the owner of the “Gazeta Wyborcza” national newspaper which is overwhelmingly critical of PiS, and German-owned Polska Press, publisher of the biggest regional dailies. This is yet another page that PiS takes from Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s playbook who successfully undermined the financial stability of the media in neighbouring Hungary.

This article is produced as part of the ECPMF co-operation with the EIJC investigative journalism network. The opinions expressed are the authors’ own and not necessarily those of the ECPMF.

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Investigative journalism gives a voice to those who don’t have one. It’s democracy’s defence against corruption, injustice, and misery. A critical press reinforces the system of checks and balances for those in power. Think Watergate, think NSA leaks, think Panama and Paradise Papers, and you think of the work of investigative networks confronting organised crime networks and state actors who carry out dirty tricks on behalf of governments. "There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate,” was the last blog entry of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia before she was murdered by a car bomb in October 2017. "She meant that, as an investigative journalist, she was standing alone," her son Matthew said. Given the circumstances, we need EU-wide investigative journalism networks more than ever. This is why the European Center for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) and the International Press Institute (IPI) are launching the #IJ4EU grant, a fund of up to 450,000 euro to support cross-border investigative journalism in the European Union.

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Source information: This article was originally published by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom –