The International Press Institute (IPI) today joined ARTICLE 19 in issuing a statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council about concerted efforts by the Polish government to weaken independent media and erode press freedom.
ARTICLE 19 and International Press Institute are concerned about the ongoing crackdown on media freedom in Poland. Since 2015, the Law and Justice party has dismantled media freedom and the rule of law and has systematically harassed journalists.
The main goal of the government has been to “repolonise” and “deconcentrate” the media market to bring it under its control. In place of legislation, the ruling party has instead pioneered a form of media capture unique within the European Union: the nationalisation of private media companies via state-owned and controlled companies.
In December, it was announced that PKN Orlen, a state-controlled oil company, would buy Polska Press Group which publishes the majority of local print newspapers and owns hundreds of news websites, with a total reach of 17 million people.
Moreover, independent media and journalists are systematically targeted with Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) for their investigative reporting. The majority are brought by the ruling party or people affiliated with it, such as state-owned companies and the public broadcaster which has become a mouthpiece of the ruling party.
These abusive lawsuits are designed not to be won but to silence critical reporting are expensive and time-consuming, which results in smaller outlets self-censoring to avoid being drawn into legal action. Similarly, many lawsuits are also brought against journalists under the Criminal Code as Poland has not decriminalised defamation.
The government is also using the COVID-19 pandemic to undermine free media. Recently, a draft bill was introduced which would impose an advertising revenue tax on private media companies. Ostensibly to fight the pandemic, in reality this tax would be targeted disproportionately at media outlets critical of the government, further draining them of resources. As a response, in February, the majority of independent media went on strike and did not issue any news for a day.
To worsen matters further, journalists in Poland also face increased risk of physical violence when reporting on protests. In recent months, police have used tear gas, rubber bullets or truncheons against journalists, with one journalist being arbitrarily detained. It is difficult to believe that attacks were accidental, given that almost all journalists injured were wearing insignia to identify them as members of the press.
We note how Poland has co-sponsored UN resolutions on the safety of journalists. Yet, its actions at the national level are fundamentally at odds with commitments contained in those resolutions. There must be accountability for violations of media freedom.
We call on all States at this Council to use their voice and urge Poland to change its course and take immediate steps to end its assault on media freedom and the safety of journalists.
Thank you, Madame President.
This statement was delivered by Callum Birch during the general debate of the 46th Session of the Human Rights Council on March 15.
It follows a report, Democracy Declining: Erosion of Media Freedom in Poland, of the findings of an international press freedom mission led by IPI and joined by the partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) including ARTICLE 19 between November and December 2020.