Poland threatens media freedom in Europe

People attend a protest against a new media law in the center of Warsaw on January 9, 2016. 
Since returning to power in October, Poland's Law and Justice (PiS) party has taken several controversial step which critics have denounced as undermining the independence of both the media and the judiciary. / AFP / WOJTEK RADWANSKI

First Hungary and now is Poland threatening Europe’s media freedom. Regardless of the safeguard of European Fundamental Rights charter and declaration, governments attempt to influence media will inevitably threaten our democracies.

 

On Thursday 7 January, the president of Poland ignored core EU fundamental rights including press freedom by signing one of the most criticized media laws in the history of the EU. Following that, the EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger has openly criticized Poland for infringing “common European values” by passing legislation that gives the government control of the state media and the power to directly appoint the heads of public broadcasters. The Commission’s First Vice President Frans Timmermans has also asked for clarification after Polish government has passed the law. The gravity of the situation has made the European Commission to put it on the agenda for the next meeting on Wednesday 13 January with the aim to assess whether the new law will pose “systemic dangers to the rule of law”.

The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights Article 11 is the guiding principle for media freedom and outlines:

11.1: Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.

11.2: The freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected.

Violating core principles

The new media law clearly violates these core principles, which Poland in fact has committed itself to respect. According to the new law, the Minister of Finance has the full right to appoint and sack senior figures in the public media. This created fears among journalists that it would result in a purge of dissent journalists working for the public media. Some will stay, and some will be replaced, and the government will de facto be in charge of the newsroom.

In 2013, the European Commission published a report on media freedom and pluralism written by experts at a High Level Group. Among the many recommendations in the report, two recommendations concern about the public media. They are:

Any public ownership of the media should be subject to strict rules prohibiting governmental interference, guaranteeing internal pluralism and placed under the supervision of an independent body representing all stakeholders.

The Audiovisual Media Services Directive, the main EU legislation in this field is committed to safeguarding the independence of national media regulators.

It is high time for the EU to show leadership. If not, European media will be on a slippery slope and so will our democracies, and the credibility of the EU.

Lessons shall be learned from the past. In 2003, The EU allowed the Italian then Prime Minister Berlusconi to control the media in a way that Italy, if it had been at the time an applicant country, it would not have fulfilled the criteria for becoming an EU member.

In 2011, Hungary passed a media law giving a centralized council the authority to impose fines that are up to 700.000 € on media that publish content against the public interest or common moral values. Again, the report from the High Level Group is very clear on this and it strongly recommended media self-regulation.

Now Poland and what’s next?

How can we make sure the government in Turkey to respect free media and stop interfering in the media if we do not act on Poland, an EU member? Now it is up to Commission to re-affirm the importance of EU fundamental values and the rule of law by taking action against Poland.

Poland has argued and so have one of the Polish journalists’ organizations, that this new law is an interim measure and that the situation might be improved within a few months. However, this cannot in any way justify what the Polish government has undertaken. The problem is that the government in the meantime will have all the possibilities to influence the media and this influence will continue to exist.

In such a situation, it is extremely important to stick to the principles. This is why we urge all international organizations and institutions as well as national organizations and institutions in Poland to do the same.

 

This article is written by , the EFJ president. 

 

 

People attend a protest against a new media law in the center of Warsaw on January 9, 2016. 
Since returning to power in October, Poland's Law and Justice (PiS) party has taken several controversial step which critics have denounced as undermining the independence of both the media and the judiciary. / AFP / WOJTEK RADWANSKI
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  • Antoni J. Wrega, historian

    13/01/2016 at 9:48 pm Reply

    I have been putting some explanation of the situation in Poland in the Western Press. In a meantime I have got an opinion concerning present Polish matters from a friend of mine, from the U.S. The Author – Tadeusz Witkowski, Ph.D, from Ann Arbor has written the following [here, in extenso]:
    I fully agree with Toni Wrega.During the so-called Communist era, Moscow-puppets government in Poland controlled all of the most important areas of power, including means of production, military and law enforcement agencies, and means of dissemination of information.
    Post 1989, its power has been limited, but it has never given up control over mainstream media. When eight years ago, the coalition of the Civic Platform and Polish People’s Party (now opposition) took over power, it used the same Communist methods. Let me quote here some remarks of the journalist that became victim of purges conducted at that time in the public media, and may also say something about other methods practiced by the old regime. “It was during the rule of the Civic Platform and Polish People’s Party (PO-PSL) coalition that the standards of a democratic state were frequently violated. Here are some exaples:
    – During the rule of PO-PSL coalition, independent journalists were repeatedly harassed by the security agencies. The staff of, among others, “Gazeta Polska” had their homes searched. In May 2011, at six in the morning, agents of the Internal Security Agency entered the flat of an Internet user who ran a satirical website on Bronisław Komorowski.
    – Independent journalists were dismissed from their posts as they demanded honest investigation into the Smolensk crash. Tomasz Sakiewicz and Anita Gargas, among others, lost their jobs in the public media. Cezary Gmyz was dismissed from the editorial staff of “Rzeczpospolita” for publishing information indicating that there were traces of TNT found on the wreck of the plane that crashed at Smolensk. Later, the information was confirmed by the prosecutors leading the investigation.
    – In June 2014, agents of the Internal Security Agency raided the office of a weekly “Wprost” which revealed stenographic records of conversations held by most important politicians. The agents wanted to confiscate computers and data storage discs belonging to the journalists. The so called tape scandal that erupted a few days earlier, provided evidence, among other things, that state-owned companies subsidized only the media writing in favour of the government. They ignored such indicators as reading of the press. Media houses were pressed not to place their advertisements in the independent press. For that reason a huge part of the media, Gazeta Polska included, were deprived of paid-for commercial advertisements.
    – In December 2014, two journalists (Tomasz Gzell of the Polish Press Agency and Jan Pawlicki of Telewizja Republika) were arrested. They covered the protest held at the headquarters of the National Electoral Commission. For a week or so the Commission was not able to provide the results of the local elections which agitated Poles and some decided to occupy the premises of the Commission. The journalists were arrested even though they had their identity cards. They also faced a lawsuit against them. To this very day the results of the last local elections remain highly questionable, the proof being 2 thousand protest notes lodged in local courts.
    – During the last 8 years, the previous government kept journalists and citizens under surveillance as a usual practice. Only in 2014, the secret service applied to have 2,177,000 telephone billings. In Europe we were definitely in the lead. The District Public Prosecutor’s Office in Warsaw is having an investigation into the wiretapping of independent journalists. In all likelihood, the service had no court warrant to do so.”
    Public media in today’s Poland still remain in hands of people that are responsible for those policies, and try to prevent the Polish government from introducing social reforms beneficial to the majority of Poles. That is why they misinform some politicians from Western Europe and the public in the West.
    The Polish parliament responded in an appropriate fashion. It simply passed a new (right and just) law that is to restore the sense of plurality in public media, and ensure social justice. [The end of Dr. Witkowski’s writing]

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