European Federation of Journalists

Poland: Media pluralism greatly endangered by oil firm’s Polska Press takeover

Credits: Bank Phrom

A long-awaited drive by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party to bring independent media to heel has started with the planned purchase by Orlen, a state-controlled petro chemical giant, of Polska Press, owned by Germany’s Passauer capital group which has dominated regional newspapers and magazines for over a quarter of a century.

The deal announced on December 7 still has to be approved by Poland’s competition authority which is beholden to the government and the deal whose value has yet to be announced is expected to be completed early next year. Polska Press owns 20 out of 24 regional newspapers, 120 local weeklies and 500 online portals  across the country.

Orlen is listed on the Warsaw stock exchange and its sales last year were worth 111bn zlotys (25 bn euro) while Polska Press reported sales worth 400 mn zlotys in 2019. The government holds 27.5% of the company’s stock which gives Law and Justice de facto control of Orlen.

The transaction has dismayed many actors of Poland’s independent media who see this as a first step in bringing the sector under government control. Some media have however described this purchase as an opportunity to break the foreign domination of the regional press. The Polish Association of Journalists (SDP) repeatedly pointed to the monopolistic position of foreign capital in the regional press market. 

The EFJ has been informed about concerns regarding the employment of journalists – some journalists are afraid of a similar wave of lay-offs like in the Polish TV in 2016. They claim to earn much less than journalists working in the national media with a high level of political pressure and self-censorship.
In addition, the EFJ is alarmed by rumours that after the takeover of Polska Press, Orlen might be interested in acquiring some of the more influential national media such as the daily “Rzeczpospolita”.
“In times of unprecedented weakening of media, in particular, local media throughout Europe, such takeover at big scale and potential big economic and state influence would neither be a surprise nor a stand-alone action,” said Renate Schroeder, EFJ Director, referring to a very dim state of the art of the media in Central and Eastern Europe. “Unfortunately,  we cannot exclude the possibility that this takeover was motivated by the wish to influence the results of local and regional elections to take place in 2023”.

In a reply Daniel Obajtek, the CEO of Orlen said in a radio interview with the RMF FM radio station „none of us will be editing texts” at Polska Press. Mr Obajtek insists that the purchase is part of his company’s retail strategy based on Orlen’s recent acquisition of the Ruch network of 1,300 newspaper kiosks which are to be modernised. He also notes that Polska Press’s unique internet users will play into these plans. What he does not mention is that such an internet network will be valuable in light of elections coming up in three years time. Mr Obajtek is a loyal supporter of Law and Justice president Jarosław Kaczynski and  Orlen regularly places adverts in publications which favour Law and Justice regardless of any marketing value they might have.

Over the past year, the company has been building a media operation that will enable it to exert significant influence over Poland’s independent media sector. Orlen has bought  Ruch, and last year established a media house that will plan and place state sector advertising in social and print media as well as manage the company’s press unit. The purchase of Polska Press also gives Orlen control of 6 printing works that produce other press publications thus giving the company sway over these still independent publications.

Recently Poland’s culture minister Piotr Gliński minister who is responsible for policy towards the media said that it ‘was quite possible state sector companies would be purchasing newspapers’ from foreign owners. This policy marks a shift from earlier statements that legislation would be introduced which reduce foreign ownership in Polish media in the light of resistance from the European Union and the United States to such moves. 

See also the alert of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries, in which the EFJ is a partner.