As Poland heads to national parliamentary elections this weekend, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has announced plans to create a “self-government” body to regulate the journalistic profession, in a move seen by its critics as the latest assault on the country’s independent media.

The proposals were announced as part of the party’s “Polish Model of the Welfare State” election manifesto released last month, ahead of the October 13 election, a vote in which the conservative PiS is expected to consolidate its grip on power.

Buried amidst the 232-page political program is a pledge to set up a watchdog body that, the text claims, would ensure ethical and professional standards among journalists, self-regulate the sector and help train young media students.

Because of the “responsibility and special trust” enjoyed by the journalism profession, the manifesto said, the body would be set up under a new law and modelled on similar self-government institutions overseeing the legal or medical professions.

While the details remain vague, observers believe this new institution, like other oversight bodies, would have broad powers to accredit and sanction journalists – setting off alarm bells in a country that has witnessed a steady encroachment of press freedom since PiS’s rise to power in 2015.

Latest attack on independent media

After the manifesto was published online, the Polish government was quick to frame the initiative as an effort to strengthen the profession. PiS Deputy Spokesperson Radosław Fogiel told reporters that the new institution would be run “100 percent” by journalists, without the influence of government. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Culture Piotr Gliński likewise said the body would help the press in its role of checking power and strengthening democracy.

However, critics fear the manifesto pledge carries more ominous implications. Given PiS’s record of appointing political allies to high-level positions, independent journalists fear that the body would be controlled by pro-government figures. Many view it as another attempt by the PiS government to target critical outlets and further shape the country’s media landscape to its own will.

Krzysztof Bobiński, a board member at the Society of Journalists, said the body would mean nothing less than the “death of independent journalism” in Poland.

“The general feeling in Poland right now is one of disbelief”, he told the International Press Institute (IPI). “Given the government’s track record on attacking independent media over the last few years, we can’t see this proposal as anything other than a ploy to regulate the country’s critical journalists.”

Bobiński fears that, if created, the new “self-government” body, while run by journalists, would be stacked unevenly with pro-government figures. This could mean critical reporters might lose accreditation or be hit with professional sanctions, he said.

“The idea would be to restrict some journalists from working properly and to hinder critical reporting and checks and balances on the government”, he added. “The same thing has already been done by Viktor Orbán in Hungary.”

Targeting critical journalists

It’s not hard to imagine how these powers might be used to target critical media, Roman Imielski, news editor at Gazeta Wyborcza, a major independent newspaper in Poland, said.

“The tactic here is obvious”, he told IPI. “If you are not an ‘approved’ journalist, then you won’t enjoy the right to obtain public information. This means you won’t get access to government press conferences; you won’t get access to state bodies; your enquiries won’t be answered.

“The government can then avoid journalists it doesn’t like. It’s also a way to select what kinds of questions can be asked.”

For example, he said, if a Gazeta Wyborcza staff member were to write a revealing or damaging story about the president, he or she may be found by the body to have broken journalistic ethics.

“This is a very worrying situation though, because I fear it will mean pro-government journalists will be forced to become the judges of their colleagues”, he added. “This would be a very sad situation for media in Poland.”

Worrying patterns

The government’s track record on the control of other key institutions does little to assuage critics’ concerns.

After coming to power in 2015, PiS created a similar umbrella body for regulating NGO funding. State-owned companies, the civil service, and military posts have also been filled with political loyalists, sweeping away officials appointed under the previous government. At the same time, PiS launched a series of controversial reforms that critics argue have strongly affected judicial independence.

“The similarities here are remarkable”, Bobiński said. “The model is: create institutions or bodies and then control of them with government loyalists. We know PiS would love to do the same (…) to the private media that it has done to the judiciary.”

Further warning signs

Since coming to power, PiS has also assumed control over Poland’s public media. Beginning in 2015, PiS replaced the management at the country’s public television and radio broadcasters, leading to the firing or resignation of hundreds of journalists. Studies show the public news programmes function largely as mouthpieces for the government.

“We always knew they would go after private media, too”, Imielski said. But that has proven substantially more difficult, given that much of Poland’s private media is in foreign – especially German and American – hands.

“Up till now, these privately-owned news services have largely been out of the reach of the government”, he noted. “This has meant there are still lots of private outlets that are critical of government policy.”

Previous attempts to pressure U.S.-owned broadcaster TVN, for example, were met with a strong diplomatic response.

“However, a new regulatory body would allow the government to target individuals, rather than outlets”, Imielski pointed out. “This means PiS could bypass issues with the EU or the United States.”

“It’s another way for them to pile pressure on independent media, but by a different route”.

Expanding repressive measures

Gazeta Wyborcza is all too aware of the methods used by the government to stifle critical reporting.

For instance, PiS has used its influence in state-owned companies to reduce advertisements at critical outlets like Gazeta Wyborcza. As a result, the paper’s ad revenue fell dramatically.
Along with Newsweek Polska and the broadcaster TVN, it has also faced legal charges and fines for critical reporting. Poland’s criminal libel laws have also been invoked against journalists on several occasions.

More recently, in February 2019, Jaroslaw Kaczyński, the leader of PiS, initiated a criminal libel charge against the newspaper in retaliation for reports about the politician’s involvement in the construction of a skyscraper in Warsaw. In all, individuals connected to PiS have reportedly filed around 30 legal proceedings against the paper, piling on additional financial strain.

Against this backdrop, Imielski sees the new regulatory body as the latest tool at the disposal of the government. “We know full well that PiS is determined to silence us”, he said. “This is the newest tool for them to try.”