DThe emocracy dies in the dark. One of the most fragile democracies in the European Union, Poland, now faces the specter of the night that falls when public media have become propaganda organs for a ruling party while private and independent media suffocate. In the end, no more light is shed on the failures and abuses of those in power, because there are no more torches to shine that light. Hungary, which is no longer a democracy, has almost reached that twilight moment, with the extinction of its last great independent radio station.
Poland is still a long way from dusk, but the threat is real. In the world index of press freedom, the country has sunken from 18th in 2015, ahead of Great Britain and France, to 62nd last year. (Hungary is 89th).
If you only watched the news on Polish state television during the last fortnight, you would have no idea that Poland is currently among the countries experiencing the worst results during the pandemic. According to Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking, Poland has fallen to 50th place among the 53 largest economies in the world, with only Brazil, the Czech Republic and Mexico performing worse. But turn on the official news and, after a brief mention of the latest Covid figures, there are long articles on how the government is accelerating the vaccination campaign, with the help of the wonderful military, and how terrible the opposition’s record was. in public health. when he was in power. In other “news”, he learns how brilliant Poland’s relations with the United States are, especially in defense; how much money is the government injecting into the railways and local government; how Christians are persecuted around the world; and how a grave was recently discovered showing more casualties from the German wartime occupation. The propaganda is more extreme but also more skillful than during the last decade of the communist regime.
Only when you consult the independent news of TVN24, do you see images of long lines of ambulances waiting outside hospitals, because there are no longer intensive care beds, and hear doctors explain how dire the public health situation really is. TVN24 is not impartial with the BBC, but does serious journalism and offers you the other side of the story. The same experience of “two realities” can be had when switching from state radio to private radio, or from newspapers supporting the government to the independents and the opposition.
Such a hyperpolarized public sphere is bad enough, as we see in the United States, but now the ruling Law and Justice party has launched a systematic attack on the independent media. The methods are straight out of Viktor Orbán’s playbook in Hungary. Advertising and public sector subscriptions are withdrawn from independent media. All kinds of regulatory tricks are used against you. Public money is injected into state radio and television. TO “pandemic tax”It is proposed on the income from advertising in the media. A law projected on the “repolonization”From the media I would target the foreign owners of the largest independent media. A state oil company, PKN Orlen, whose boss is a crony of the Law and Justice party, buys both from a major newspaper distributor, Ruch, and from the largest network of regional newspapers. Polska Press. The most critical newspapers are bombarded with lawsuits. Gazeta Wyborcza has more than 60 lawsuits, including one of the minister of justice in person. And, as European legal authorities have repeatedly determined, the independence of Polish courts has been so eroded that a fair trial can no longer be relied upon.
This is that old Hungarian specialty, salami tactics: eliminating freedom slice by slice.
The Polish media and civil society are strongly resisting, but they need a little help from their friends. The United States matters enormously here. The government and president of Law and Justice, Andrzej Duda, attaches great importance to his special relationship with Washington. But they were staunch supporters of Donald Trump, who in return gave Duda election assistance last summer. The Joe Biden administration does not owe them favors and has an agenda that it claims to be strong on democracy and human rights. In addition to defending TVN, which is owned by the American company Discovery, Washington should now highlight independent media as the first line of defense for democracy in Poland.
Britain counts less than before in Warsaw due to Brexit, but, together with other liberal democracies like Canada and Australia, it can help focus attention on this issue. Germany is of prime importance, and a German-Swiss group, Ringier Axel Springer, has one of the most important Polish online platforms, Onet.pl, the tabloid Fakt and a leading weekly, Newsweek Polska. The Polish government tries to silence Berlin by constantly raising World War II, but the proper lesson from that history is not that Germany should be particularly reticent on these issues. It is precisely because of this terrible past that Germany should be the first to defend freedom and human rights.
The most important and problematic thing is the EU. One of the most depressing discoveries in recent years is that the EU, which spends so much time talking about democracy, is pathetically ineffective when it comes to defending democracy within its own member states. Now going to distribute many more billions of euros to those states, both from the EU-wide post-Covid recovery fund and from the EU bloc new seven-year budget. Large sums will go directly to populist nationalist governments in Warsaw and Budapest, with minimal conditions attached. Most of these large investments announced on the Polish state television news are made with the help of EU money. At a minimum, the EU should make it very clear that under the rules of the single market, foreign media owners cannot be discriminated against under any circumstances. It should distribute a significant part of the new money directly through the local government, as suggested by the mayors of Warsaw and Budapest. And it should create a substantial EU fund for the defense of media freedom across the continent.
Last week, the leadership of the Polish Law and Justice party began talks with Orbán and Matteo Salvini of Italy about forming a new populist nationalist grouping in the EU. It is not only democracy in Poland that is at stake here; it is democracy in Europe as a whole.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism