Last call for Poland’s free press

How Poland’s press freedom has plummeted since the national-conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) came to power in 2015

Every evening when the main news programme is broadcasted on the Polish public service outlet Telewizja Polska (TVP), a group of protesters stand ready with banners and megaphones in front of the TV studios in the Polish capital, Warsaw.

At 7:30 pm, when the news programme begins, they raise their banners in the air, while a protester named Julia Łowkis points two megaphones towards the TVP headquarters. She turns on a taped communist propaganda anthem to symbolise the political censorship of the media. This—according to the protesters—is reminiscent of the time before 1989, when Poland was under the strong influence of the Soviet Union.

“TVP is lying! TVP is lying! TVP is lying—just like PiS,” they shout in unison as Łowkis starts the day’s protest speech, which they have prepared together.

Łowkis was one of the initiators of the protest movement in 2019 in response to the assassination of liberal Gdansk mayor Paweł Adamowicz. The protesters believe that TVP was partly responsible for the murder by inciting violence against the opposition through the spread of hatred and lies. 

They believe that TVP—the country’s most viewed media outlet until a few years ago—has become an extension of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), which has been in power in Poland since 2015.

This is their 1,278th protest—and they have vowed to continue the ritual at least until this fall’s parliamentary elections to remind people of the dire state of press freedom in Poland.

Young Poles in particular no longer trust TVP. According to a recent survey, nine out of ten Poles aged 18 to 40 have lost trust in the media. However, among PiS voters—who are typically over 60 years old—two out of three still trust the media.


Support the government or find a new job

Shortly after PiS declared victory in the 2015 elections, political changes in Poland began to leave their mark on TVP.

“PiS put their own people in charge in an attempt to take over the media, and it wasn’t long before the lies and manipulation began,” says Tomasz Sygut, the former director of the  country’s largest news channel TVP Info. When it became clear in 2015 that TVP had been subordinated by the new government, he decided to leave his job in protest.

“The public media became a propaganda ministry for PiS. It started a process of destroying the opposition and all those who do not support the government,” says Sygut.

“All journalists were faced with a simple choice,” he says. “Either you had to support the government, or you had to start looking for a new job. I was disappointed to witness how many journalists continued to work at TVP.”

Since then, Sygut has put journalism on the back burner and now works as a communications manager for Warsaw’s largest bus company. He is happy with his new life, but worried about what future other Polish journalists are facing.

“I worked as a journalist for more than 20 years, so I sometimes miss it. I am happy with my new family and work life, so I personally have nothing to complain about. But I am worried about the country my children will grow up in,” Sygut adds.

Opinions became facts

In the months following the elections in 2015, when the newly appointed board of directors at TVP began its work, many journalists followed the exit of Sygut.

One of the more familiar faces to Polish TV viewers was news anchor Grzegorz Nawrocki, who announced during a live broadcast in 2016 that he, too, would be leaving the station. “I quit when the new director was appointed, and so did a few hundred of my colleagues. Among the anchors, only a few remained,” he explains.

Grzegorz Nawrocki no longer felt he had a free hand to do his job as a journalist. He experienced this firsthand when preparing for a TV interview with a Polish Member of Parliament:

“I was given a list of questions to ask and topics that were forbidden. That had never happened before. I realised that I would no longer be able to ask the questions I wanted,” he recalls.

The journalistic principles that had previously been held high at TVP disappeared along with the many employees.

“As a journalist, you know that your job is to distinguish between opinions and facts. But that was no longer the case at TVP, and opinions became facts,” says Nawrocki, who has also worked as a journalist at the BBC.


Polish media in Polish hands

When PiS took power in 2015, Poland was ranked 18th in the annual world ranking of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Their highest ranking since the world ranking was introduced.

Since then, Poland has fallen down the list as the government has gradually reformed the media landscape. In 2023, Poland is ranked 57th in the world, between Kosovo and Burkina Faso.

The decline is largely due to the changes in the public media, which, according to RSF, has become an “instrument of propaganda”.

The PiS government believes that the reforms have been necessary to ensure “increased media pluralism”. In addition, PiS wants to make Polish media independent from foreign influence.

In line with this goal, in 2020, the politically controlled oil company PKN Orlen managed to complete a controversial acquisition of Polska Press from a German company, Verlagsgruppe Passau.

The takeover was met with concern from various fronts—including the human rights ombudsman.

Polska Press operates 20 of Poland’s 24 largest local newspapers, 120 weekly magazines and hundreds of online sites, which are read by more than 17 million users every month.

According to the oil company, the acquisition “does not affect the editorial line” and has from the beginning been treated “as an investment in business development”.

That same year, PiS attempted to implement a new media law that would prohibit non-European owners from holding more than 49% of Polish radio and TV stations.

The media law, better known as Lex TVN, targeted the private media outlet TVN, which is owned by the American Discovery. TVN continues to provide politically independent journalism and has overtaken TVP as the favourite TV station of Polish viewers.

But after massive criticism from both the EU and the US, Polish President Andrzej Duda ended up blocking Lex TVN. The president feared that the law would damage relations with the US.


1,5 million Poles lost access

Although independent critical journalism continues to be produced by the private media, many—especially older Polish citizens—have to settle for the news produced by the state-owned TVP.

After introducing a new broadcasting system for terrestrial television (in which signal transmission happens via radio waves sent to an antenna) in 2022, 1.5 million Poles lost access to the two major private TV stations TVN and Polsat, while TVP continued to broadcast to citizens with older receivers.

The average Polish person may have to search far and wide if they are looking for a fair coverage of the political situation in the upcoming elections. According to press freedom expert Andrzej Krajewski, PiS is using the many local newspapers that have been bought by the national oil company to “promote their own political project”.

“It is a state-owned company, and it is directly connected to the PiS government; there is absolutely no doubt about that. They have also made sure to fire the editors-in-chief. So, there is no doubt that they will follow the party line when there are elections in the fall,” says Krajewski.

Andrzej Krajewski was tasked with monitoring press freedom for the Polish Radio and Television Board, Krajowa Rada Radiofonii i Telewizji, from 2012 to 2016.

On the wall in his office hangs a small, framed photograph from the Oval Office, where he sits opposite President George H. W. Bush—while serving as TVP’s Washington correspondent at the time.

“Back then, there was no shame in working for TVP,” Krajewski says and laughs.

After his term on the Broadcasting Board expired in 2016, Krajewski has continued to closely monitor developments in the Polish media and is currently working on a report on TVP’s ties to the government.


The opposition promises reforms

Andrzej Krajewski remains hopeful that the election could be a turning point for Polish journalism—if the opposition, led by former president of the European Council Donald Tusk, succeeds in taking over government offices.

The main opposition party, Civic Platform, has made media freedom a key issue and is running on a promise to return to the situation before 2015. This is confirmed by the party’s Secretary General Marcin Kierwinski when we meet him at the party office in Warsaw:

“The first thing we will do if we win the elections is to appoint a new head of TVP—and replace the employees who should be journalists but in fact are working for PiS,” he says.“Another priority would be to sell Polska Press; it’s quite strange that an oil company is responsible for our local newspapers.”

The Secretary General promises that TVP journalists will once again have a free hand if Tusk comes to power.

“Eight years ago, TVP was an ordinary public service channel, and it should be again. I think we should try to create a Polish equivalent of the BBC,” says Kierwinski.

The time is now 8:22 pm at the TVP headquarters in Warsaw. The protesters gather over a few bags of sweets to take stock of the day’s protest before going their separate ways.

Julia Łowkis’ voice has become hoarse after almost an hour of shouting. When asked what keeps her standing out here for years, her response is direct: “I am standing here because I am really, really angry about the situation we are in.” Łowkis plans to go on vacation with her daughter once the October elections are done.

Tomorrow the protest will start again at 7:30 pm.

TVP has not wished to comment on the criticism raised against them in this article.

“According to a recent survey, nine out of ten Poles aged 18 to 40 have lost trust in the medi“However, among PiS voters—who are typically over 60 years old—two out of three still trust the media.”

“In the 2023 world press freedom ranking, Poland is ranked 57th in the world—between Kosovo and Burkina Faso.”

“Eight years ago, TVP was an ordinary public service channel, and it should be again.”

There’s many more magazines full of articles just like it. By buying magazines, you not only get a carefully assembled and beautifully designed publication, you also help support the next generation of independent European journalists.