Since October 2015, when the Law and Justice party (Polish acronym: PiS) emerged victorious from the parliamentary election, Poland – both its people and institutions – has been subject to rather dynamic changes. The new government’s actions, bound on wholesale transformation of the socio-political landscape, has attracted international scrutiny, inter alia in the area of media independence. A swift takeover of the public media companies by PiS loyalists, along with plans for a deep reform of the media law has been interpreted as a sign of the deterioration of the media system and, more broadly, of an ‘Orbanisation’ or even ‘Putinisation’ of Poland.

There is, however, a set of persistent issues with Poland’s media landscape, which provides a context that cannot be overlooked. We argue that the condition of the Polish media has been deteriorating for some time, will continue to do so in the coming months and years, and while PiS government’s actions might exacerbate the problems, the root causes are elsewhere.

Falling trust in media organisations.

Results of the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer imply that only 34% of Poles think media coverage can be trusted, the lowest score among all the twenty-eight countries questioned in the worldwide survey. One must remember that the highest levels of trust are in quasi-authoritarian countries such as China (71%), United Arab Emirates (65%), Indonesia (62%) and Singapore (62%). However, in the Netherlands 52% of the population say they trust the media, 50% in Argentina, 48% in Brazil, 45% in United States and 40% in the United Kingdom. Interestingly, heavy users in Poland are not that trusting as well – only 42% trust media content versus 64% in the United States and 57% in the UK.

The media is becoming increasingly partisan.

Poland’s media system has been characterised as essentially polarised. Back in 2012, Bogusława Dobek-Ostrowska, a media scholar, pointed out that most members of the media engaged in entrenched journalism and only a few were following public interest in their editorial lines. It can be argued that four years later only a handful of outlets can be considered neutral and without an outright ideological preference. At the moment, it is already more than a decade since Poland’s public debate was defined through a confrontation between PiS and its apologists.

Moreover, the change of government resulted in wholesale transfers of journalists from pro-PiS newspapers and TV stations into the public outlets. As the new government put reforming public media high on its priority list, the general impression of a swift “capture” of the public TV (TVP) and radio was prevalent among observers. Mr Jacek Kurski, a skilful yet divisive veteran politician highly loyal to the PiS chairman, was appointed as TVP’s chairman while many prominent MPs were stating blatantly that the public media is an “essential tool” for government policy-making and should “know better” than to criticise it.

Although Mr Kurski argues that he only brings back the balance to the “deeply partisan” TVP, it seems that the new appointees to both public TV and radio will perform  or conform to the expectations of the party, be it in terms of reporting or programming.

Only 59% Poles say that the most important role of a journalist is to be objective and at the same time one third (28%) think that the information that they provide is reliable. Moreover, journalism is not a prestigious job anymore; in an economy facing the problem of job quality and precariousness, more than a third of journalists work on temporary contracts while in other countries this number does not reach a fifth.

Meanwhile Poles distance themselves from the public life.

36% of Poles declare that they are interested in the country’s politics (in 2012, it was 39%). This is much lower than Europe’s average (51%). Only Czechs are less interested in that area – 17% of the country’s residents declare being interested in politics, which is four points down from three years before.

Danes, Germans, Dutch and Swiss are invariably among nations that are the most interested in public life – more than 60% of their residents declare that they follow political events. By way of comparison, 45% of the French and the same percentage of Estonians show interest in public life.

That low interest is present also in media consumption – 44% spend less than half an hour, on average weekday, watching the news or shows dealing with current political affairs while the average is 40% in well-established democracies like Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, France or Finland.

Economic consequences of falling readership and circulation

The economic slowdown posed a vital challenge to the media system in general and print press in particular. Even though several European countries experienced even greater decreases, circulation in proportion to the size of the population is now 77 copies per 1000 adults, half that of France’s and a third of Germany’s and UK’s – only Spain, Slovakia and Romania have lower figures.

Between 2009 and 2013 the drying up of marketing budgets of many companies, compounded by rising competition from web-based electronic media, resulted in the total average circulation of both paid-for and free daily newspapers in Poland falling by more than 30%. The newspaper advertising revenues were halved over that same period.

In such circumstances, public funding has become an important source of revenue for many media outlets, and its distribution remains partisan. For example, according to Kantar Media (a media research company), in January 2016 state-owned enterprises and government ministries spent PLN 567,000 on advertising in “W Sieci” and PLN 80,000 on advertising in “Polityka”. The former is among the most pro-PiS newsweeklies with only two-thirds of the circulation of the latter, left-leaning and openly critical of the government, title. In the previous years, however, accusations of government supporting friendly media through advertising and paid announcements were prevalent as well.

No parachute or springboard at hand

This is just a snapshot of a number of issues that are working against the independence and quality of Poland’s media. We predict that in the coming months and years, the underlying economic and social factors, as well as the internal dynamic of the media market (including its growing fragmentisation) will lead to further their deterioration. In the end, the political pressures resulting from the change of government might prove less damaging than the long-term trends, which do not seem to be easily reversible.

Piotr Arak – PhD Candidate in Public Policy, University of Warsaw, Senior Analyst for Social Affairs at Polityka INSIGHT, @piotrarak

Piotr Żakowiecki – Social Affairs Analyst at Polityka INSIGHT, @zakowiecki

Piotr Arak & Piotr Żakowiecki

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

Download the report in PDF