Relations between the new right-wing Polish regime and the EU have taken a turn for the worst lately. Whether it’s doing so purposefully or not, the PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – Law and Justice) Party now heading the government there seems to be following the route pioneered only a few years previously by Victor Orbán in Hungary towards making the country an “illiberal democracy.”
This has involved measures such as reducing the independence of the Supreme Court equivalent there, but what has caught the eye most has been the law recently pushed through the Sejm (the lower house of parliament) which converted the State radio and TV institutions from commercial organizations wholly owned by the government to governmental institutions – thus liable to having their top staff chosen by the government of the day. Once this law was passed and signed last week by the country’s president (also PiS), the government lost little time in putting in its own people.
As usual, I’ve tried to track that via my regular review of the Polish press, so that I can then pass on interesting bits of what was going to you via tweet and/or blog-post. But now that the law has been passed – and the Polish government and EU Commission have set out their antagonistic positions about it – what seems most interesting is a tweet I first picked up from last November, when the PiS government was getting ready to take power.
Here we got a first warning, from the influential Munich newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, of the intentions of the incoming PiS government, in particular of Piotr Gliński who became Minister of Culture. Note the emphasis: “cut down on foreign influence” – now, what sort of “foreign influence” could there be within the State radio and TV institutions? As mentioned, even before the new law they were 100%-owned by the Polish government; some variation of this is the rule with all other European State broadcasters. So what could they mean by “foreign influence” – perhaps the foreigners who happen to work there?
No, that’s not it (although it wouldn’t be any surprise if the new bosses at TVP and Polskie Radio do fire the foreigners); rather, we’re speaking here of the print media. In Poland that is mostly foreign-owned (and that mainly from Germany) and Gliński wants to do something about it.
The new government wants to “change the ownership proportions” of local newspapers, Gliński said. To do this, they are considering “buying back” shares owned by foreign publishing companies, founding native Polish newspapers or further building up those fully Polish-owned papers that now exist.
Consider: “buying back” foreign ownership stakes in Polish publications. What if those foreigners who now own them do not want to sell, or demand what the new Polish government considers too high a price? It is easy to imagine here that the PiS government will not be willing to accept nein! for an answer. It’s easy to see we are talking here about the potential expropriation of business assets bought fair-and-square in the past.
That’s why this aspect of the PiS government’s new campaign to “nationalize” Polish media (gleichzuschalten, anyone?) has not been emphasized more. Because if EU Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans is already alarmed over what has been done to the independence of broadcast media in Poland, one can imagine such heavy-handed moves into the vibrant newspaper and magazine scene there could easily turn the degree of confrontation up to 11 – and quite possibly result in the first use of the EU’s recently acquired powers to suspend a country’s voting-rights when it acts too egregiously against common EU values.
Not emphasized – but the intention is there nonetheless, at least because Piotr Gliński let the cat out of the bag prior to assuming office last November, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung (and surely other observers) noticed. Indeed, this prospect makes the current growing EU-Poland dispute specifically over broadcast media all the more important, since the nature of its resolution (that is: who wins) will inevitably have a major influence on whether the PiS government eventually dares to bring forward its more far-reaching plans for the print media.
Sullying a Glorious Media Past
Those plans would be a shame if carried out, especially in Poland. In particular, the leading national daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, had a key role in the peaceful revolution of 1989 whereby the Communists were thrown out of power via free elections – the very name of that paper means “election newspaper” and it began life as a crude, hastily put-together newsletter whose function was to make clear to the entire population who the Solidariność candidates were in that first election in June, 1989. From the very beginning it has been headed by Adam Michnik, a renowned anti-Communist activist with a stature in moden Polish history only slightly below that of Lech Wałęnsa himself. Oh, and now the American newspaper firm Cox Communications partly owns the company behind it – but you should still expect fireworks if it ever comes to the point where any government, PiS or otherwise, tries to tell Adam Michnik what to publish!
Or take the other main nationwide daily, Rzeczpospolita. It has a rather “dirtier” history that includes decades as a Communist government paper, but was made fully independent shortly after 1989 and has been an excellent paper (cited many times on this blog and Twitter-feed) ever since. Now it seems to have partial Norwegian ownership – but so what? Norwegian ownership!
Yet the journalists there have a clear if somber view of what is on the horizon. One of them, Piotr Jenroszczyk, was on the panel that the German national radio station Deutschlandfunk put together just last week to discuss the media situation in Poland. Towards the end the moderator asked all participants to predict what was likely to happen in the future. Jenroszczyk’s answer was along the lines of “I work for Rzeczpospolita which is a privately-owned paper – but I can’t say for sure that that has any influence on whether it will be allowed to stay in its current form.”