Press pluralism and freedom are central to an open and engaging media environment. Moreover, a free press is widely acknowledged as an important aspect of a democratic state. Following elections in October 2015 and the success of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), concerted efforts have been made by the right-wing government to alter the position of the media in Poland. Media in Poland has by no means been entirely free of government interference prior to the election victory for the PiS. What is especially alarming about more recent events is the extent to which the Law and Justice Party have sought to consolidate control, and paints a cautionary tale for press freedom in the future.
Perhaps the most prominent example of government dissatisfaction with the media is the December 2016 attempt to tightly control journalist’s access to parliament. Framed as a means of regulating the media’s presence in parliament and allowing fairer access to politicians for smaller publications, the decision ultimately sparked outrage. How could the public be reliably informed about the actions or discussions of their elected representatives, if press access was so heavily restricted? Removing opportunities to interview politicians within parliament, or to record committee meetings, does not therefore appear to be an altruistic move to ensure ‘equal access’, or to better regulate proceedings. The nature of resultant protests, both in their scale and inclusion of opposition lawmakers and the public, likely surprised the government, leading to the proposed changes being dropped. The blowback is particularly pertinent given the clearly established intention of the government to challenge critical journalism. Public protest over the issue does, however, show that ordinary Poles are unhappy about the situation.
This particular example can be seen in the wider context of other legislation and the government’s goal of exerting greater control over the press. Public media has been undermined through direct interference within the process of appointing supervisory and management board members to national TV and radio broadcasters. The ‘small media law’, passed in January 2016, and the subsequent creation of a National Media Council under newer legislation, represent a desire by the PiS to strip the public media of its independence. Controlling content and how it is presented gives the government a great deal of influence over consumers of news.
Government reform of the press, or their determination to achieve it, has further polarised what is already a divided media landscape. Self-censorship, through fear of repercussions, ultimately curtails opposition-friendly outlets and individuals. The fate of Polish democracy is therefore tightly bound to the state of its press.