A Polish Journalists’ Association (SDP) Initiative: “Journalists Talk about Poland”

“This is a message to our brothers and sisters in Poland, where freedom is at stake,” commented Bono at a concert he held in July in Amsterdam, prior to singing “New Year’s Day”, a 1982 song inspired by the introduction of martial law on the Vistula. Around the same time, Beau Willimon, author of the well known “House of Cards” screenplay, urged people, via his Twitter account, to send him photos and videos of protests in Poland. The “Chain of Light”, formed by thousands of people who contested the Law and Justice government, captivated the world, on almost a similar scale, as pictures depicting Solidarity’s struggle against the Communist regime 35 years earlier; the same country, with often the same heroes, delivering a similar message, about a revolutionary wave of civic rebellion, against a dictatorship. But on this occasion, appearances mislead, because the analogy is utterly false. And it doesn’t take all that much convincing to see the difference. Suffice to become acquainted with some basic information about the country, its culture and the nature of the dispute that divides so many people today.


Who is right?

Looking at the pictures sent out from Poland into the world via social media in the midst of July’s hottest days, one might have had the impression that the fall of this grotesque Law and Justice (PiS) government was imminent. Protests against changes of the status of the country’s courts actually brought thousands of people out on the streets throughout the country. Concerns over planned reforms of the judiciary, were certainly shared by even more compatriots, who either stayed at home or were on vacation. All at once, one cannot question the fact that millions of Poles have a completely different opinion, than the protesters, on the workings of the courts, as well as on the state of our democracy; the millions that in the most recent General Election voted for the Law and Justice Party), a party whose ratings continue to be higher than those of all the opposition parties combined.


“Poland is Here!” – chanted the summer crowd, armed with candles and white roses, in front of the Sejm (lower house of the Polish Parliament) and the Supreme Court. But that is only part of the truth, because the same (albeit a completely different) Poland led to thousands gathering: in support of the present government. This is not, as in the days of the birth of Solidarity, a dictatorship versus society conflict. There is also no question of a “hyper-nationalist” regime imposing its order upon a revolting (or indifferent) citizenry. Poland simply has a sharply divided public opinion – applying an analogy that will hopefully speak to the imagination of those less aware of the political reality here – as might come about, between America’s Democrats and Republicans, and Britain’s Tories and supporters of the Labour Party. And the difference between Great Britain and Poland is that at the moment, one of the parties along the Vistula is unable to recognize the other’s equal right, to exist. They do not treat the Law and Justice government, as a consequence of yet another turn of the democratic wheel of fortune, but rather as a certain anomaly, which should be removed from the normal electoral cycle, by the application of emergency measures.


Whilst drinking an espresso in a Warsaw café, one might want to flip through a couple of weekly’s that necessarily present a multiple of different political viewpoints, in a highly pluralized press. From one author, the reader will find out that Poland has returned to communism, that civic liberties are at risk, and that the countries tri-partite separation of power is being undermined. These articles see a society “strangled”, its freedoms threatened. Whilst other journalists – on the contrary – breathe a sigh of relief, describing how the country has regained its sense of direction, finally supports the weak, whilst unemployment falls, the economy is doing well, and investments grow. Credit rating agencies see it, but somehow world opinion wishes to listen to the appeal of our “brothers and sisters” (to quote Bono). Who then is right? Whose voice is more representative?


Poland and Russia Alike?

Regularly published opinion polls on Poland’s future prospects inform us – for the first time since 1989 – that there are more optimists in Poland today than pessimists. Using objective sociological tools, it is difficult then to see Poland as a country in any crisis, yet that is the impressions one could have, based not only on reports penned by western correspondents, but also from the latest rankings of international non-governmental organizations, such as Freedom House (FH) or Reporters Without Borders (RWB), who rate Poland on a par with Turkey and Russia.


It is important at this stage, to clarify that none of these reports take a position on Poland’s economic rating, neither are they the result of an audit, or even a representative opinion poll. Each report was prepared according to an identical pattern – one based uniquely on surveys, completed in each of the countries, by full time employees of the aforementioned organisations. These invariably reflect the views and assessments of specific milieus… or rather of one milieu. It is as if, at a time of sharp political divisions, one were to look at the United States exclusively through the eyes of the Democrats, and at Great Britain – the Labour Party.


Example: In its report Freedom House rings the alarm bells that government agencies have sought, not to subscribe to publications that support opposition parties, whilst state-owned companies have shifted their advertising budgets to media that openly supports the present government. In the FH report, however, there is no mention that before 2016 newspapers supporting Donald Tusk and Ewa Kopacz’s government, raked in the whole advertising pot, whilst the (then opposition) right-wing advertising media, could only look on at government institutions and state-owned company budgets from afar. It is surely important to note that this mechanism, which has little in common with the workings of a free market, has been operating in the Polish media for over 20 years! Meanwhile, no use looking to the FH or RWB 2007-2015 rankings, for even a trace of concern that media critical of the government of the day were surrounded by a very similar sanitary advertising cordon.


One would theoretically expect international organizations dealing with human rights issues, to have an objective view of the situation in Poland; all the more impartial being a view from the outside. Unfortunately that is not the case; as can be seen from an appeal, to apply sanctions against Poland, signed in the spring of 2017, by Amnesty International (AI), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Open Society European Policy Institute (OSEPI). An appeal, the consequence of an uncritical acceptance of the situation as diagnosed and presented by the current opposition. Such actions, are ill-advised and damaging to the prestige of such serious organisations, that can be proved to have failed to sound the alarm, and inform European commissioners, when the then government – presently in opposition – kept people jailed for 3 years without sentencing, and deferred the publication of local government election results for several weeks; something that had up to then not happened in any other EU country. And when all electronic media (E-media) – both commercial and public – only presented the government’s view, to the exclusion of the then right-wing opposition, whilst the concentration of media ownership was wholly inconsistent with strictly laid down standards, as observed throughout the EU.


Observer or Creator?

Contrary to the signals flowing out into the world, today’s Poland is a country far from authoritarian or even dominated by any single political option. Though the Law and Justice Party has a majority in both houses of parliament, all the key cities in Poland, are governed by politicians that either sympathize with the opposition, or directly represent it. Of the 16 Regional Councils (responsible for allocating the EU budget), only one has a Law and Justice majority.


A similar situation exists in the media market. It is true that public media presently support government policy (which is a tradition in Poland since 1989), however opposition commentators benefit from the power of commercial television and radio stations, as well as major web news outlets and newspapers with large readerships; a power they do not hesitate to use, something clearly evident during the July protests. In building an alternative to the Law and Justice Party government, a large section of the media – artists, large advertising agencies, as well as well trained web campaign organizers – have become involved. In fact the publisher of «Gazeta Wyborcza» (literally: Electoral Newspaper, founded in 1989, prior to Poland’s first partially free elections) took on the role of organizer; financed the printing of posters, created graphic symbols, and coordinated an action strategy. Having taken such a decision, can the representatives of the Fourth Estate still claim to be objective observers of Polish reality – begs a separate article. Most certainly however, this situation illustrates beyond any reasonable doubt that freedom of speech is not threatened in Poland, neither that opposition media are being persecuted. On the contrary, they have a tremendous potential to influence the views of their audience, and can be seen to be an increasingly bold participant in the political game. Not as an observer, but as a creator.


Everyone has a right to his or her political sympathies, not everyone however should express them openly, and especially a foreign publisher, with an opinion recommending that journalists unambiguously engage on the side of the opposition. Poland, 13 years after its accession to the European Union (EU), continues to operate under rules far removed from those that apply in France, Germany and Scandinavia: foreign capital, has a dominant media position and a monopoly of the regional market. Should a warning light not come on when the world learns that German publishers are the only guarantors of Poland’s freedom of speech? Does this act not smell more of mobilizing public opinion in defence of economic interests – the media status quo? The Law and Justice government announces a media deconcentration bill. What if, in its effect, this proposed bill is a much delayed implementation of solutions regarded in other EU Member States as the norm? After all, it could be argued, that this is yet more proof of the authoritarian nature of a nationalist Warsaw government. And the world will buy it.


Free government or free press?

This is how Poland is positioned. Not as a country of diverse opinions and reasoned arguments, but a populist dictatorship, to be fought by a free society supported by a liberal West. Tomasz Lis (editor-in-chief of Newsweek, published by Ringier Axel Springer) was nominated for the European Press Prize Commentator Award, for… a propagandist leader article “Something is Rotten in the State of Poland”. In the justification for the nomination we read that T. Lis “became one of the most famous faces of impressive social resistance, against the systematic violation of democratic rules by the Polish government”. This is not a thesis or an opinion, but a statement of fact that is easy to verify; something that is indeed worth doing.


One can have various opinions about the changes of the legal system planned by the Law and Justice Party (current woe of the European Commission), nonetheless freedom is safe and well in Poland; both in the traditional and social media. So-called public opinion is expressed in every which way, in all its hues, equally powerfully by both those who support and oppose the government. Of course, you can and must complain that little good comes from a polyphony of voices without a constructive dialogue. Closing oneself in an information bubble, ignoring people with different opinions from our own is a global and not, as some seem to suggest, uniquely a Polish problem.


“Where the press is a free, and every man able to read, all is safe”, stated Thomas Jefferson. “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”, wrote Jefferson in a letter to Edward Carrington in 1787. To paraphrase this famous quote: Perhaps many Poles are of the opinion that they do not have a free government today, but fortunately, and without a doubt, we do have a free press in Poland.

English translation from the Polish as at September 21st 2017

Piotr Legutko