“In Poland, the party decides what I am allowed to watch”

In August 2021, Poland enacted a controversial media law that forbids companies outside of the European Economic Area to own more than a 49% stake in local television and radio stations. This so-called  “Lex TVN” — which targets one specific private TV channel — is one more blow in the ruling party’s assault on the free press.

This opinion piece was originally published by Investigate Europe: www.investigate-europe.eu

The Party is the most important. The Party takes over state-owned companies and staffs them with its loyalists, even if they have no idea about business. The Party takes care of jobs for these loyalists’ families. The Party controls state television and radio, feeding them with billions in loans. The Party seizes more and more areas of life, restricts rights, tells you how to think, what you can teach at school, who you can and cannot sleep with, who is better and who is worse, whose views are good and whose are bad. The Party decides which pieces of news and information can reach me and which cannot.

This is not a story from China. It is a story about Poland— a European Union Member State of 38 million people — where the politicians of the ruling party (with the misleading name  “Law and Justice”) are violating one democratic rule after another. After a state-run company (controlled by the Party) bought a chain of local newspapers in late 2020 (and now controls coverage for 17 million readers), it was time for television. In the middle of the holiday season, the parliament (in which the party has a majority) passed a law called “lex TVN”, which restricts foreign entities that are not based in the European Economic Area from owning more than a 49% stake in television and radio channels in the country.

It sounds innocuous. After all many EU countries have their own, often similar, regulations. In this case, the context is important. Polish regulation will be the basis for refusing to renew the concession of the private news television channel, TVN, whose majority shareholder is the American company, Discovery.

The Party is not even trying to hide the fact that the new law is about to gag one specific TV station. For years, TVN has been reporting on the authorities and their different scandals. It is one of the last private stations that the Party still has no influence on. And it does not matter that over 1,000 journalists — the largest number in the history of Poland — have signed a protest against the “lex TVN”. It does not matter that the new law destroys the business of an American corporation, and so, de facto violates the interests of the USA, which until recently (at least until the election of Joe Biden as president), was the greatest ally and protector of successive Polish governments. US troops are stationed in Poland and the alliance with the USA is often referred to as a brotherhood, a guarantee of security and friendship. Today, it turns out that the USA is a threat to Poland, and that threat is… TVN.

In fact, the sole purpose of the change in the law is to hit and limit the activities of TVN, a television station over which the party has no influence. The point is that viewers should not learn about the scams of the government, nor about other dubious laws, restrictions, bans and scandals. The reason? Because this is what the government and the Party want. The same Party whose activists are now starting to speak more and more loudly about a possible “Polexit”.

There is no need for comparisons, no need to compete with undemocratic regimes (even in Hungary the media was taken over in a more sophisticated way, by oligarchs linked to Orbán) — “lex TVN” is a mockery of law and a mockery of citizens. The Party’s arguments — that this is about preventing Polish media from being bought by shady or undemocratic countries, and about combatting the risk of money laundering — are absurd. They are absurd for everyone, but not for PiS politicians.

For 18 years, I lived in Communist Poland, which was dependent on the USSR. I well remember the time when newspapers, radio and television spoke with the voice of one Party. I saw first-hand how access to information was restricted, how free media was gagged, how it was possible to rule through incredible cynicism and contempt for citizens’ rights. I kept in mind a world from George Orwell’s 1984, in which the Party officially does not want power for its own ends, but for the good of the whole. In the book, the Party reaches for power because it believes that the majority of the people are weak, cowardly individuals who cannot cope with freedom and with truth, and therefore must be ruled and systematically deceived by others much stronger than them.

I am having déjà vu. In August 2021, a different Party decides what I will be allowed to watch and what I will not. The Polish parliament votes to abolish free media, to take away my right to choose. For many years, PiS has been cutting off my and my fellow citizens’ rights and freedoms like it was cutting a salami, slice by slice — the abortion ban, the destruction of the judiciary, the brutal offensive of Catholic religion in schools (while the country is shaken by child abuse scandals whose main characters are Catholic priests). “Lex TVN”, the dismantling of free media, is a really big piece of this salami. The people of the regime laugh when someone dares to talk about free media or freedom of speech. They know that no one will take to the streets to protest about private television. The Polish autocrat Kaczyński knows that the voter’s memory is that of a one-day-old mayfly. He hopes that by the next election, we will have forgotten what the Party has done. He knows that without free media, no one will remind us of this.

I know that freedom of speech is not something that Polish families talk about around the dinner table. I also know that without free media, we in Poland will be deaf and blind. That without free media, there are no free and fair elections. I know that today, the Party is abolishing private television, and that in a year’s time, it may ban me from writing for and working with Investigate Europe because it will decide that this is too much freedom, which I cannot cope with.

When I talk with other journalists, they say: barbarians are robbing our house in front of our eyes, taking away our furniture, and we stand with our mouths open, paralysed. Soon, we may not even have the chance to witness this anymore. Without free media, we will not see it happening. What will the European Union do about this? What will the Commission do? Is this not the right time for someone to take an interest in who is going to spend the recovery fund money in Poland and how? And should the autocrat who oppresses the media and journalists be given a drip of EU money right now?

Orwell predicted everything. He described it all long ago. One day, the Party will declare that two and two is five, and everyone will have to believe it. Common sense will be considered the greatest heresy.

And instead of the applications of private television, newspapers and Internet services, a message will appear on the mobile phones of the Poles: “Democracy is not available in your region”.

Wojciech Cieśla

Co-founder and editor-in-chief at FRONTSTORY.PL, Wojciech Cieśla is an award-winning Polish journalist who, since 2016, has worked with Investigate Europe. He is the co-founder and chairman of Fundacja Reporterów (Reporters Foundation). He is based in Warsaw.