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Media Without Choice: What Is Going On With the Polish Media System?

Media Without Choice: What Is Going On With the Polish Media System?

Your favorite show was supposed to be here. Where is it? Why, on February 10th, 2021, we, Poles, could not watch TV or read the latest news online? February 10th was a challenging and sad day for all those who support democracy based on access to independent commentary and news. Perhaps the initiative ‘Media Without Choice’ made many people aware of where the Government of the ‘united right’ is heading and what politicians can still go. Although 2021 started only five months ago, Jaroslaw Kaczynski's party has already decided to take away our right to abortion and information. What is next? Taking away the ability to stand over our own bodies and choose the channels from which we get information is a transgression of all democratic boundaries. Thus, it is not surprising to see massive resistance from journalists and media overall. In this article, we will talk about ‘Media Without Choice’ all about, what is in the basis of that initiative, and which impact it has.

The essence and roots of the initiative

The Polish TV-feed during the Media Without Choice action, look from the control room. tvn24/Twitter

Media Without Choice is an action carried out by private media in response to the announced bill introducing a tax on advertising. According to the Polish   Government's calculations, the new bill would contribute about one billion zlotys to the state budget. Is that much? When we look at this amount objectively, it is unimaginable, but on the scale of the state budget, it is not an amount that even for the underfunded health service would mean a breakthrough. So if the project would not bring any changes for citizens, why did it appear? The answer, for many, is unequivocal - it is about the politicization of media.

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The beginnings of these political decisions can be traced back to the Law and Justice party's takeover of Public Television and other media outlets that are subordinate to the Government, which were transformed into propaganda tubes. The manipulated pieces of information reach millions of Polish homes and create an illusional image of a country flowing with honey and milk. All those who can learn about the actual situation of Poland, thanks to the private media, find lies and manipulation in the information provided by TVP. A perfect example can be the recent tapes of Obajtek published by Gazeta Wyborcza, who, as a supposed candidate for the new prime minister, is presented by the government TV as a man of freedom, outstanding statesman, and our national good.

The frontpage of Gazeta Wyborcza about the Obajtek tapes. Gazeta Wyborcza

We can only guess how much truth there is in this, if only after the material from TVN24 (private media channel) Czarno na białym (Black on White), in which information was revealed about Obajtek accepting bribes to rig tender results in the municipality of Pcim, where he was mayor at the time. However, no verdict has been made in this case. But for free media, would we know about it? Certainly not. That is why it is so essential for the state to have independent journalists who monitor the authorities and look into their hands.

The role of a public broadcasting in the distortion of the Polish media system

The Broadcasting Act of 1992 states that “public radio and television shall carry out the public mission by offering, on the principles set out in the Act, to the whole society and particular parts of it, diversified programs and other services in the field of information, journalism, culture, entertainment, education, and sport, characterized by pluralism, impartiality, balance and independence, as well as innovation, high quality and integrity of the message”. It turns out that since 2015, public media in Poland have been operating against the law. One may ask oneself what part of the media offers its viewers completely independent information. However, it is worth realizing that private media are not financed by us, the taxpayers, and advertisers. And here, the circle is made.

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One of the news reports made by TVP (the Polish public broadcaster): “Provocation of the LGBT-spaces to the God’s body”. TVP

Without money from advertisers, some media will not be able to support themselves and provide salaries for their employees. Perhaps the planned tax would not hit such giants as TVN or Polsat, but smaller media could have a problem maintaining their position on the market. Admittedly, the bill provides for a threshold - the tax would be paid by companies whose revenues do not exceed 1 mln zlotys from TV, radio, or cinema advertising and 15 mln zlotys in the case of press advertising. The tax is to cover also, among others, Google or Facebook, which would pay only 100 mln zlotys. Governments, guided by the experience of many countries globally, should be aware that such companies know very well how to avoid taxes. The new tax would probably be collected from media employing Polish journalists who work to inform us here in Poland.

The economical context of the turbulence of the Polish media

There is also a propaganda hook in the bill. Half of the revenue from the proposed tax would go to the National Health Fund. The Government assumes that it would be 400 mln zlotys. In light of the long-term consequences of the emergence and spread of the SARS CoV-2 virus and its impact on health, the Legislature has proposed that the National Health Fund, from which health care services are funded, be augmented with additional revenue to be derived from premiums from online and conventional advertising. Why the NFZ (National Health Fund) is not financed with an additional 2 bln zlotys a year, which the Government gives for propaganda in TVP and polish radio, and additional money for health care should be paid by media that already pay CIT and VAT? We can find some hints on the strips in TVP Info: Media corporations treat Poland as a colony or Media do not want to pay for the health service, non-public media are therefore anti-Polish and do not count with Poles' health. 2 billion a year for propaganda does not go into the forest...

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On the one hand, the rhetoric above is presented by major TV stations and mainstream private media and, on the other hand, by public media favoring the Government. Representatives of the left, not necessarily those sitting in the Sejm, react to the tax proposal from an entirely different perspective. Piotr Ikonowicz, a Polish politician, wrote on his Facebook profile on March 10th, 2021: “Will any private medium cease to exist due to the ad tax? Will it go bankrupt? I have long advocated introducing an excise tax on advertisements and using this money to finance a non-governmental, community television channel.  Where is this hysteria coming from? Can't we argue with each other anymore? Nothing brainwashes people like advertisements. It would be best if there were no commercials or as few as possible. But if they do exist, it would be good for us, as a society, to get something out of it”. But do the authorities want us, as a society, to have something from the money of advertisers? If the Polish Government approached this tax honestly, then yes - probably thanks to the amounts from the media tax Poland could become a more friendly place. However, one should take into account the factors that limit trust in the “united right”. 

Orlen's purchase of Polska Press, one of the largest publishing groups in Poland, illustrates its desire to take control of the media. The acquisition of control over newspapers published by Polska Press gives access to almost 20 million recipients. Is it about strengthening the sales of the whole Orlen group? Or rather about the politicization of the titles? As readers of the titles that constitute parts of Polska Press, we will quickly find the answers to these questions. We will do so if we have access to alternative sources of information, and if the takeover of the media by state-owned companies continues, all that remains is vigilance. Our reaction to the change of rhetoric in newspapers taken over by Orlen depends on many factors. In particular, the degree to which we are privileged - education, language skills, the ability to exchange views, the time we can devote to seeking information. That is why it is so crucial for all of us, whether we live in Warsaw or a small village somewhere in Poland, to have access to the truth, coming from legitimate channels that respect their audiences and employees.

Dark side of the media insight

We repeatedly hear about violations of the employment rights of people working in the media. Kamil Różalski, one of the ex-cameramen for TVN, wrote, in response to TVN's narrative calling the bill harassment, in a Facebook post on February 26th, 2021: 

“I have been professionally connected with TVN since September 1997, when the station was established. I worked on the largest productions over the years, contributing to its development and current position in the market. By blackmail (like everyone else in the implementation department), I was forced by the director to terminate my contract by mutual agreement, and from 1.1.2013, I became a co-worker. From that moment on, my colleagues and I were treated as second-class people. We became victims of bullying, modern slavery, professional exclusion, blackmail, and retaliation. Our employers forced us to work 16-17 hours a day, losing our health as a result. Orwellian reality became a fact at TVN SA. Nepotism, bribes, labor law violations, blackmail, humiliation, GDPR violations, and other pathologies have become the daily bread at TVN. It is unbelievable that this television station dares to lecture others on ethics while at the same time failing to observe basic standards and legal regulations. Until recently, TVN SA employed about 1,800 people in violation of labor laws. These are people without the right to retirement, vacation, health insurance. It is also massive money in unpaid contributions to ZUS. A group of people (of which I am also a member), according to the procedure, informed Discovery Inc. (owner of TVN SA) about pathologies and violations of law. What did the Americans do? They broke the methods they had established themselves. They violated our anonymity, exposing us to retaliation by TVN (which, incidentally, we did not have to wait long for). We will consistently inform the press about the violations of law, misleading investors, tax evasion in Poland, hypocrisy, and double standards applied by Discovery Inc. and TVN SA so that the public in the United States, Poland, and some EU countries will be reasonably informed”.

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Regarding those views, how do you address the moral calls of TVN, which is accused in the above post of, among other things, breaking the law and avoiding paying taxes in Poland? Why does a station that is regarded as the democratic savior of the nation disrespect some of its employees? People who do not have access to this kind of information can trust the station and consider it the only honest news channel. In the above case, we see how powerful the freedom of speech is, which allowed Różalski to reveal information that presents an accurate picture of what can affect employees of media giants.

February 10th, 2021 as a historical day for Poland

Left-wing activist Ben O'Connor wrote about the media outcry and the storm that was unleashed over the proposed new tax:

“Remember this day as a defining day for the media as we know it. The media oligarchy, which for years has been creating an oligopoly in access to information, has just shown how free media works in practice. People who professionally dealt with the promotion of neoliberal propaganda, people who told crude lies through the mouth of 'experts', predicting the collapse of the Polish economy at even the slightest attempt to redistribute capital, are just blocking access to information in the name of their own economic interest. This is how taxes are avoided in Poland. This is how power is abused—enough of this bullshit. The media in Poland are corrupt. They are ruled by cronyism and propaganda, not only in TVP but in every more prominent media company. The media in Poland are free from telling the truth and taxation. This is where our freedom of media ends”.

Did this day actually become decisive? Perhaps it led to even more annoyance of people with the rule of Law and Justice, but it is certainly worth looking at the phenomenon of propaganda, used by everyone, everywhere. Limited access to information, which the media use as and when they want creates information bubbles in which we, as recipients, live—using the political message, which is always against some issue or candidate. In Polish reality, you can hardly look for a medium that would simply pass information as it is. The neoliberal rhetoric exposed by O'Connor also seems to have monopolized the most significant Polish press, so that we are closed in two bubbles - a liberal one on the side of TVN or Onet, and a strictly pro-government one as in TVP and Polskie Radio. It is probably in Public Television, such a large station, that falsification, restriction, and manipulation of information is the most widespread.

Conclusion

Since 2015, the public news channel has ceased to inform and has become a place through which messages are poured into the heads of viewers and readers to create individuals who are forced to live in an artificially created information bubble in which what is conveyed by the media is true. Anyone who lives and thinks differently is discredited. It is not easy to find substantive content in the articles available in the online edition of TVP. Manipulation of information, slander, and aggressive discrediting of political opponents make TVP an unreliable medium, and its actions lead to the destruction of human lives.

Opposition politicians have repeatedly asked for the liquidation of the TVP Info channel. Would it become a fact in case of the victory of the opponents of the ‘united right’? Since its creation, the television was supposed to evoke specific reactions. Ever since politics revealed the power of media, it has been using them repeatedly. Maybe the level of party affiliation on public television will never change. Perhaps only the politicians who are responsible for it will change. A similar situation shapes the narrative of private media, which always takes sides. To what extent we will be able to break through the imposed interpretation of the phenomena occurring in Poland and distinguish falsehood from truth depends on us. In an ideal world, we would learn about disinformation already at school. For now, we can only fight the lies on our own, with the methods we know. We can also completely cut ourselves off from the media, which would probably be good for us...Above all, however, we should not believe the narratives imposed on us but instead look for them individually.

Written by Julia Smogorzewska, a ‘Mlodzi o polityce’ (Youngsters about Politics) project, University of Warsaw, Poland