Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Poland is Taking a Cue from Russia on Media Suppression

Poland has found a renewed importance in global affairs following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, under the belly of pro-Western and anti-Russian sentiment so keenly sold to us by the Polish government, one of the largest and most successful post-communist countries is showing signs of slipping ever deeper into the ways of its authoritarian past.

While Poland has been one of, if not the most supportive of Ukraine in its effort to defend itself against Russian aggression, is this support the result of centuries-long animosity between Poles and Russians? In its struggle to maintain a grip over the state, is the government now resorting to tactics more in common with Putinist Russia than the “liberal West”?

Since 2015, Poland has been governed by the Law and Justice (PiS) party. Aside from all but outlawing legal abortions and declaring much of the country ‘free from LGBT ideology,’ the PiS has also spent the last seven years systematically undermining Polish democracy. They have packed the courts with loyal judges, turned the state broadcaster into a propaganda outlet, attempted to ban critical television networks from broadcasting, and used libel laws to harass journalists.

But controlling the public also requires more subtle approaches than ham-fisted intimidation and the PiS has also been using state-owned enterprises in a much more subtle and insidious way. Harassment of journalists, an unacceptable practice for an EU and NATO member, may already be seen as a work hazard by Polish journalists, the ruling party has taken to a strategy of subterfuge and coercion to further enshrine their message in the press.

In March 2021, Orlen, the state-owned oil giant whose CEO is a former PiS politician, bought Polska Press, the owner of most of Poland’s regional newspapers. Since then, Orlen has been systematically replacing the Polska Press’ editorial team, including the group’s editor-in-chief, with journalists linked to PiS or PiS-friendly outlets.

The state has been systematically using government funds, funneled as advertising contracts, to finance favourable media coverage and enforce a media bias.

Professor Tadeusz Kowalski at the University of Warsaw found that companies such as Orlen advertise almost exclusively in a select few media outlets, despite others reaching a far wider audience. For example, Poland’s largest commercial television network, TVN, received almost no advertising money from state-owned enterprises, while Polsat, a smaller network, received much more. In fact, Polsat received more money year-on-year even as its audience declined.

In fact, media outlets that took a pro-PiS editorial line before November 2015, and that have remained so, have been rewarded with substantially more advertising money since PiS came to power, regardless of their audience and market share. Outlets that were critical of PiS prior to November 2015, and that have remained so, received substantially less advertising money.

In their struggle for survival, the Polish press has bent its knee to the government and is moving ever closer to becoming the new RT. Looking at the media playing field, media outlets which had not had a pro-PiS editorial line prior to November 2015, but which had received advertising money from state-owned enterprises in the intervening period, had become more pro-PiS in their coverage by 2022. In other words, the distribution of the advertising money had made the overall media landscape in Poland less pluralistic and much more favourable to PiS. All this is happening while being in the EU and NATO. Vladimir Putin would be proud.

What of the EU? As state-owned enterprises are being used by the government to destroy media plurality in Poland – the European Union is actually helping them to do so. While the EU has held back COVID recovery funds from Poland, it is still giving millions of euros to Polish state companies. Orlen alone has announced a €12 million grant from the EU within the last month, which follows a €180 million loan from the European Investment Bank last year. European taxpayers are funding a company which is being used to undermine media plurality in Poland.

Poland is not alone in entering an uncontrollable slide into an autocratic abyss if these actions remain unchecked, and Eastern Europe may face a new era of autocracies that devastate democratic progress of the post-Soviet years and eat away at civil liberties.

Hungary has long since abandoned its democratic credentials, Italy has a new post-fascist prime minister, and Estonia may follow if the right-wing populist EKRE party performs well in elections next year. The use of state-owned enterprises’ advertising money might only be one aspect of Poland’s slide away from liberal democracy, but it is an important one. So long as the EU continues to hand money to companies such as Orlen, it is sending out the wrong message about just how far it is prepared to preserve that democracy.

Being pro-democracy, pro-free media, and pro-freedom of expression are not exclusive to liberalism. With the UK firmly in Conservative hands for the most part of the last century, it cherishes and nurtures these very rights that protect all. It is the authoritarian Soviet and Putinist narrative that labels them “liberal,” making it a dirty word.

The right has a right to freedom and the Polish government needs to be vigorously opposed in their suppression of the basic rights for Europeans. Democracy is at stake, and it will be much more than just European taxpayers who will pay the price.