Polish Media under Pressure

Headquarters of the national television network TVP in Warsaw.

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.




New UK Press Regulations: Are we Impressed?

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers” 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A new press regulation plan has been proposed by the UK government, formally known as Section 40 of the Crime Courts Act 2013, in response to the Leveson Inquiry. The plan is being put forward to protect national interests by regulating and assuring only trustworthy and reliable articles are published.

Under the new scheme, publishers must sign up to the UK’s first ever independent regulator; Impress. If newspapers do not sign up, they would have to pay the cost of any legal action against them, regardless of the merit of the lawsuit. The ‘regulator’, however, would be funded by the kind of people who are often subject of investigations. The leaking of the Panama Papers is a good example of a situation which would not have been published under the new proposed regulations; the publisher simply wouldn’t be able to afford the defamation claims against the reporter. The new regulations do not protect the reporters, rather it ties their hands and benefits the oligarchs and the wealthy; the primary funders of the scheme.

The public relies on reporters to have a broad scope of information about what is going on around us and in other parts of the world. Their freedom allows a range of theories and ideas to be tried and tested. If their level of truth and accuracy is questionable, then as the public, we have the freedom to personally choose and filter our sources of information. Freedom of press is no threat to our nation, rather its censorship would undermine the very values which support the heart of our country’s freedom. We have to ask ourselves who the regulations have been set up to protect. It certainly compromises the investigation for reporters with a regulated frontier.

Furthermore, the regulation challenges the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which promises the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Although Section 40 seeks to generate ‘trustworthy’ resources, if there is such a thing in our post-truth political culture, it simultaneously breaches the public’s freedom of opinion and expression by withholding from them information which might be enlightening. The public can use this information to put pressure on to create a more accountable and transparent system. Perhaps Section 40 would be doing the nation more damage than good.

Imposing Section 40 in the hope of punishing reporters who care little for truth is being done at the expense of their freedom; the freedom of press. Reporters would no longer be able to exercise their right to circulate opinions in print without censorship from this independent regulator. It surrounds reporters with egg shells, threatens publishers with possible bankruptcy for crossing a line which seeks to silence them, and surrounds the few who are exposed to scandal with a protective bubble.