The Shadow Over Media

This autumn, the media world in Warsaw and those tangentially connected have been anxious to see if the government will implement the hinted at restructuring of the industry.

Michał Kobosko
14 grudnia 2017

This article comes from The Buzz Around the Ballot edition of Visegrad Insight 2/2017 devoted do media landscapes and disinformation in Central Europe with a modified part updated after Poland fined TVN. Read full contents page here.

Journalists, media executives, mediators, political scientists, politicians, diplomats, the advertising industry and even big business are discussing only one issue: will it happen or will it not?

If the answer is yes, then how, when, and what are the costs? That fever caused a discussion of the so-called deconstruction of the market for private newspapers, radio stations and big web portals, which have so far developed thanks to the unrestrained power of the free market.

The media has ignited a conscientious segment of society though to a lesser extent than in the past summer when the independence of the judiciary was at risk. At that time, dozens of thousands of people spontaneously went out into the streets of Polish cities. They did not, necessarily, go to defend the existing system of the courts. Even though the courts in Poland have never worked well – cases last too long, judges are drowning in paperwork – they are still free. People, however, recognised that even being far from perfect, the courts and judges must be protected from the direct, ideologised control of politicians.

Similarly intense, but more diversified, emotions are being projected towards the media. There are voices that even object to the general state of media believing that they are of poor quality, polarised and increasingly staffed with inexperienced journalists. Commercials are being mixed in with the journalistic mission, advertisements are pretending to be serious articles and fake news is being presented as fact. Playing to the basest of our emotions, sensational journalism has become the headlines and main stories of the day, replacing the well-researched pieces which had been the norm. And all those issues are immersed in a deep and dense political environment: you are either for the current government (PiS) or against it. There is no third option, the shades of grey have almost been completely erased.

Firstly, the PiS authorities took over the public media. Those which after 1989 were the loots of the successive government teams. PiS did the same as all predecessors – but they did it to a much larger extent, far more brutally and without any hesitation. Today, a large segment of the population has been sentenced to public electronic media consumption (in many parts of Poland it is the only option) where they get large, and repetitive doses of propaganda, which follows closely the rule of law under the Polish People’s Republic and other totalitarian regimes. It is not journalists but political officers who are responsible for the public media in Poland.

The so-called truth does not seem to matter anymore, it may even become harmful. The government is telling the people that it has the well-being of the Poles in mind while others (the opposition, intellectuals, the cultural world, Germany, the European Union, NGOs) are trying to harm the Polish people and, thus, the government is demonising anyone who opposes them.

This became the tipping point where the party that governs Warsaw could not stop. The government, whose primary focus is the concentration of power in all areas of public life, has now turned their “Sauron’s eye” towards the private media. Taking a page from a fellow Central European with totalitarian aspirations, Jarosław Kaczyński is using Viktor Orbán as the source and inspiration for this latest power grab as Orban was able to successfully put the media under his shoe in Hungary.

In fact, independent private media in Poland are easy targets because of their ownership structure. Bauer, Axel Springer (now the Swiss-German Ringier Axel Springer joint-venture) and Polska Press (Passauer Neue Press) play the biggest role in the printed press and internet markets. American programming is the most popular in the television market (Discovery holds the largest private television) while the French have a command over the radio market. The issue of the ownership by foreign shareholders both helps and harms the media.

In times when nationalist and xenophobic tendencies are increasing, it is easy to criticise “foreigners” for their willingness to influence the domestic issues of Poland. Some of the most susceptible are the German media groups who are accused of “intervening in Polish internal affairs” because many are critical of the current Polish government. These groups are presented as even wanting a coup d’etat and are painted as generally anti-Polish and, therefore, hostiles.

Exactly the same narrative took place from 2005-7 when PiS was first in power. At that time, the party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski was much weaker and did not manage to bring their plans into reality. Today it is much stronger, its support reaching 50% in some polls. This is why PiS feels empowered to launch a revolution against the media.

Their first step was taking away funding (the ad sales and newspapers subscriptions), which had come from companies and state institutions. The second step was the “repolonisation of the media”: an operation to increase the share of Polish capital in the media – which is parallel to what they did in the banking sector. PiS ultimately (which is plus!) departed from the repolonisation rhetoric and has now replaced it with “deconcentration”: a process that, according to official statements, would lead to increased pluralism in the market, wider media ownership and a greater variation of content providers. Here, to justify their actions, PiS refers to trends from the largest EU countries.

“We do not do anything different than the French and Germans. They also limited the ceiling of market shares in the media and did not let foreign broadcasters and publishers in,” PiS authors say. This is partially true, but they are misrepresenting the situation dramatically.

First of all, the countries Poland is referring to have had these rules for decades, and it has become part of their tradition. These rules were created when the media market was just taking shape, in the aftermath of the World War II and as part of the creation of new Europe. The history of Poland – decades spent behind the Iron Curtain, with a fully functioning system of political censorship – is very different. Foreign investors entered the Polish media market when there was a lack of Polish capital – and Polish customers were hungry for Western models, pluralistic opinions, attractive packaging and diverse products.

Secondly, antimonopolistic law is enforced in Poland. It is acknowledged that 40% of the market shares give a dominant position and anything above is blocked. PiS was considering to reshape this restriction in their draft of the deconstruction law, lowering the threshold to 20%-25%. It was also planning to introduce a mix of different market participation criteria, combining a position measured by audience or readership with a position in the advertising market to revenue and the country of origin. Furthermore, the legislation might be introduced retroactively – so it could impose penalties on those who have been already active in Poland for a considerable length of time. The law was supposed to be working in order to push out specific foreign media groups from Poland. If this sounds familiar that might be because this is reminiscent of Putin and his law from 2015 which frightened all western media companies from Russia.

In Poland, there is a fairly simple operation: the taking over of the most popular newspapers, portals, news stations, companies and publishing houses by those officially or quietly linked to authorities. Instead of deconcentration, there will be media concentration in the hands of PiS and the acolytes of the party. It is mostly about money, power and the supposed leap in diversity of the media in order to cement the political power of the country for years to come. The language of “increasing media freedom” used by PiS is a classic use of Orwellian “doublespeak”.

In October 2017, when I write these words, the fate of the deconstruction law is unknown. Perhaps there will be no law, instead, the state-owned companies and specially-appointed “independent” investment vehicles will start offering foreign publishers and broadcasters “unrefusable proposals”, the redemption of individual newspapers and television channels. It is believed that the primary goal of PiS will be the consolidation of 20 strong regional newspapers published in the largest Polish cities by Polska Press group. Before the local elections in autumn 2018, such a loot would be extremely tempting for the ruling party.

Both the EU institutions and the United States have spent enormous diplomatic effort to discourage the Polish authorities from monopolising the media. Particularly in Washington, the plans of the Polish government have been frowned upon, causing protests and fears among the political decision-makers and the administration of President Trump. Their key interest is a US owned company called TVN, the largest Polish multi-platform network. Back in 2015 TVN was acquired by Scripps Networks Interactive, a broadcaster from Tennessee. Now Scripps is being taken over by a much larger US entity, Discovery Networks. Once this transaction is completed in early 2018, TVN will be able to join the Discovery group.

Interestingly enough, TVN and its flagship news channel TVN24 became targets of massive unfriendly actions animated by the current government of Poland. Back in July 2017 Polish tax authorities demanded PLN110 million ($30 million) from TVN in relation to the transaction, which took place three years before Scripps acquisition of TVN. TVN decided to pay the demand and to appeal in the regional administrative court.

Secondly, in December 2017 Poland’s media regulator KRRiT fined TVN24 with PLN1.5 million ($415,000) over its coverage of protests in parliament last year.  The regulator said it had fined the broadcaster’s TVN24 channel for “promoting illegal activities and encouraging behavior that threatens security”. The US Government has quickly and strongly responded to the KRRiT move. “This decision appears to undermine media freedom in Poland, a close ally, and fellow democracy. Free and independent media are essential to a strong democracy,” said the US Department of State in its statement.

Washington did not waste much time after noticing that things in Poland’s media market started to deteriorate. Now the question remains: when will the time come, will Poles go out into the streets to defend the media as effectively as they were defending the judiciary? The problem is that foreign media would be harder to shield. Many tend to think that the common-sense answer to the question (do you want the media in Poland to be German or to be Polish?) would be of course domestic ownership.

Michał Kobosko is the head of the Polish office in the Washington think tank Atlantic Council. For over 20 years, he was co-creating the Polish media market, among others as editor-in-chief of the Polish editions of “Forbes”, “Bloomberg Businessweek” and “Newsweek”.

In cooperation with Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung e.V., Office Prague. The opinions expressed in the contributions are those of the authors and do not reflect the positions of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.

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