Poland’s “political cleansing” of journalists

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There’s no doubt that Poland’s media landscape is undergoing a rapid transformation. The country’s ranking in the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index plunged from 18 in 2015 to 47 in 2016. The government rushed through a law in the waning hours of 2015 that gave it oversight of the nation’s public broadcaster. Scores of veteran journalists have lost their jobs.

Further changes may be on the way as new media legislation, the so-called “big media law”, is being debated and proposals have been floated to restrict how journalists report from inside the Sejm.

Poland has been all about the “good change” since November 2015. The phrase goes back to a campaign video produced in May 2015 for the Law and Justice (PiS) party’s Andrzej Duda. The party went on to win the October 2015 elections and Duda became the sixth president of Poland.

Since the election, “good change” has been co-opted on Twitter as #dobrazmiana by critics opposed to the government’s legislation, which, in the case of the public broadcasters, is being implemented by Krzysztof Czabański, a former journalist and minister for culture and national heritage.

As part of the changes, a total of 141 journalists have been dismissed, forced to resign or transferred to lesser positions between the election and May 2016, according to journalist union Towarzystwo Dziennikarskie (TD). The “small media law” passed in late December 2015 meant the replacement of the managing board of public broadcasters TVP and Polskie Radio, which started a top-down dismissal process that is still ongoing.

Among the first wave of dismissals was Tomasz Lis, a TVP presenter who hosted a talk show and was a winner of the annual Hyena of the Year, an anti-prize for unreliability and disregard for the principles of journalistic ethics. The prize is awarded by the journalist union Stowarzyszenie Dziennikarzy Polskich (SDP), which is generally rather supportive of PiS. Teresa Bochwic, a member of the SDP management board, expressed a characteristic view in her assessment of the “good change”: “For better or for worse, the lying propaganda has stopped for good. On TV, there is regular information and pluralistic current affairs. Pro-governmental? Perhaps even sometimes pro-governmental, but at least not deceitful.”

Even among the sympathetic SDP, however, PiS’ moves towards increased restriction on the movement of journalists and the dismissal of Henryk Grzonka from Radio Katowice, where he had worked for almost 30 years and had recently served as editor-in-chief, has raised concerns.

TD, the youngest of Poland’s journalist unions, was founded in 2012 out of the realisation that “in journalism, we can no longer be together”, according to co-founder Seweryn Blumsztajn.

In an interview with Index on Censorship, TD co-founder Wojciech Maziarski said that the recent dismissals have the character of “political cleansing”, which started progressively from the top, and then moved gradually to the lower ranks of what he considers to be state media.

“The ones to bite the bullet first were journalists and editors of news and current affairs programmes, as they…have the biggest influence on public opinion,” he said.

“The state media is intended to shape citizens of the new, right-wing Poland, which means that gradually, all will be replaced who are associated with liberal thought, feminism, left-wing ideas, even if they don’t engage directly in topical political debates,” Maziarski added.

Apart from Lis and several other well-known personalities, dismissals included Dariusz Łukawski, vice-chair of the journalist section of TVP2, and lead correspondent Piotr Krasko at TVP1’s main news outlet Wiadomosci.

Later, the axings reached media workers from various programmes and ranks, which could also explain more recent dismissals or transfers in regional branches of the public TV and radio broadcasters. Throughout March and April, more cases emerged: Marta Bobowska from TVP Opole had to put down her work and leave mid-day on 12 April; and Wojciech Biedak, editor at Poznan’s Polskie Radio affiliated Radio Merkury.

According to Maziarski, the number of dismissals shows that state authorities view the media as “a frontline in a political war – and this line has to be stacked with trusted and tried soldiers”, which necessitates the exclusion of “not only critical journalists but everyone who thinks independently”.

This may have been the issue for TVP Info editors Izabela Leśkiewicz and Magdalena Siemiątkowska, who were dismissed from their posts in mid-March immediately after a dispute with station management. Leśkiewicz and Siemiątkowska disagreed with the portrayal of the anti-PiS NGO the Committee of Democratic Defence (KOD) in a segment to be aired. KOD was founded following PiS’s electoral success in late 2015 and has since been actively rallying public opinion to protest government policy around the country.

Monitoring body KRRiT has repeatedly accused TVP of bias in its reports on the civil society organisation. The day before another KOD demonstration, the managing board of TVP Info decided it would not air a live broadcast of the beginning of the march, and specific narratives on “how KOD is hating on normal citizens” would be shown instead. Leśkiewicz and Siemiątkowska were dissatisfied with this and offered an alternative, more nuanced programme set-up. TVP Info management then fired the pair. Two other TVP journalists, Agata Całkowska and Łukasz Kowalski, resigned in protest.

Currently, new media legislation is being considered in parliament. This draft law would amount to a structural and financial overhaul of the public broadcaster. Under the draft, heads of the new “national media” outlets would be “appointed by a six-person National Media Council elected by the lower house of parliament, the Senate and the president for a six-year term” with one of the council slots legally guaranteed for the largest opposition caucus, according to Radio Poland. The proposed law would also replace the current license fee with a monthly “audiovisual” charge added to Poles’ electric bills beginning in January 2017.

Unlike Poland‘s three other journalists’ unions, Towarzystwo Dziennikarskie is boycotting the draft media law consultation being conducted by the minister for cultural affairs. Maziarski explains the union’s standpoint: “A big problem for public media in Poland is their financing. The introduction of a general audio-visual fee has been one of the main demands of the journalist environment. However, the fee introduced through the proposed law is intended to serve the maintenance of an indoctrination machinery and the PiS propaganda rather than public media. In effect, public media in Poland have ceased to exist.”

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Poland: Scholar questioned over claim Poles killed more Jews than they did Germans during World War II

Jan Gross (Princeton)

Jan Gross (Princeton)

A Polish prosecutor has interrogated Jan Gross, a Polish-American professor of history at Princeton University, to determine whether claims he made that Poles “had killed more Jews than the Germans” during World War II constitute a crime.

Insulting the nation is punishable by up to three years in jail in Poland.

“The ability to question established narratives is vital to academic freedom and a free and progressive society,” Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship, said.

Gross, who has researched Polish complicity in the Holocaust, said he was questioned as a witness for five hours on Tuesday 12 April in the district attorney’s office in Katowice but has not been charged with a crime.

Complaints were filed by Polish citizens over Gross’ claims, which were made in an article published in Project Syndicate last September. In it, the historian also argued that Poland’s opposition to accepting asylum seekers could be linked to its “murderous past”.

“I said straight out that I was not going to offend the Polish nation,” Gross told the Associated Press regarding his recent questioning. “I tried to make people aware of the problem of refugees in Europe. I’m just telling the truth, and the truth sometimes has the effect of shock on people who previously were not aware of the case.”

In February Index reported that Polish President Andrzej Duda considered stripping Gross of an Order of Merit over his academic work on Polish anti-Semitism. Gross outlined in his 2001 book Neighbors that the massacre of some 1,600 Jews from the Polish village of Jedwabne in July 1941 was committed by Poles, not Nazis.

Poland: Challenging official history of the Holocaust could see you branded a “traitor”

OSWIECIM, POLAND - JULY 22: Exhibition in Concentration camp in Auschwitz. It is the biggest nazi concentration camp in Europe on July 22, 2014 in Oswiecim, Poland

Still from an Auschwitz exhibition, 22 July 2014 in Oswiecim, Poland

When discussing academic freedom more than a century ago, German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber wrote: “The first task of a competent teacher is to teach his students to acknowledge inconvenient facts.” In Poland today, history appears to be an inconvenience for the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which is introducing legislation to punish the use of the term “Polish death camps”.

The Polish justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro announced earlier this month that the use of the phrase in reference to wartime Nazi concentration camps in Poland could now be punishable with up to five years in prison. If enacted, Poland would find itself in the unique position of being a country where both denying and discussing the Holocaust could land you in trouble with the law. Holocaust denial has been outlawed in Poland — under punishment of three years “deprivation of liberty” — since 1998.

Any suggestion of Polish complicity in Nazi war crimes against Jews brings with it, in the party’s own words, a “humiliation of the Polish nation”.

Of course, Poland was an occupied country which suffered terribly under Nazi Germany, so any talk of acquiescence understandably hits a nerve. As all good history students know, however, the discipline has its ambiguities and competing theories, from the acclaimed to the crackpot, and singular, simplistic narratives are rare. But few democratic countries in the world punish those who argue unpopular historical positions. Which is why legislating against uneasy truths is the same as legislating against academic freedom.

Two recent examples show the Polish government of doing just this. Firstly, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda made public his serious consideration to stripping the Polish-American Princeton professor of history at Princeton University Jan Gross of an Order of Merit — which he received in 1996 both for activities as a dissident in communist Poland in the 1960s and for his scholarship — over his academic work on Polish anti-Semitism. Gross outlined in his 2001 book Neighbors that the massacre of some 1,600 Jews from the Polish village of Jedwabne in July 1941 was committed by Poles, not Nazis. More recently, the historian has claimed that Poles killed more Jews than they did Germans during the war, which prompted the current action against him.

Some who disagree with his arguments have labelled Gross an “enemy” of Poland  and a “traitor to the motherland”. The historian has hit back, saying in an interview with the Associated Press: “They want to take [the Order of Merit] away from me for saying what a right-wing, nationalist, xenophobic segment of the population refuses to recognise as facts of history.”

Academics too — Polish and otherwise — have come to his defence. Agata Bielik-Robson, professor of Jewish Studies at Nottingham University, points out that a “democracy has to have a voice of inner criticism”. She is worried that PiS is seeking to do away with such criticism in order “to produce a uniform historical perspective”.

Polish journalist and former activist in the anti-communist Polish trade union Solidarity Konstanty Gebert explained to Index on Censorship that PiS has made “convenient scapegoats” of people like Gross. “PiS is moving fast to reestablish a ‘positive narrative of Polish history’ by breaking with an alleged ‘pedagogy of shame’,” he said. 

The party first tried — unsuccessfully — to outlaw the term “Polish death camps” in 2013 when it was in opposition. Should the law now pass, and you need help adhering to the proposed rules, the Auschwitz Museum has released an app to correct any “memory errors” you may experience. It detects thought crimes such as the words “Polish concentration camp” in 16 different languages on your computer, keeping you on the right track with prompts asking if you instead meant to write “German concentration camp”.

Poland may have lurched to the right with the election of PiS last October, but the party’s authoritarianism — from crackdowns on the media to moves to take control of the supreme court — seems positively Soviet in some respects. Attempts to control history, too hark back to the Polish People’s Republic of 1945-1989, when, in the words of Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier in the winter 1985 issue of Slavic Review, “cultural patterns” and “habits of mind” made it impossible to make historical interpretations “alien to that national sense of identity and a methodology at odds with the canons and objective scholarship”.

Gebert sees similarities between current and communist-era propaganda “in the basic formulation that there is nothing to be ashamed of in Polish history, and in Polish-Jewish relations in particular, and in the belief that there is one correct national viewpoint”.

However, now that freedom of speech exists, the government can and are being criticised for their actions. “This puts the government propaganda machine on the defensive,” Gebert said.

Just last week, President Duda spoke against the “defamation” of the Polish people “through the hypocrisy of history and the creation of facts that never took place”. He has made his motives clear: “Today, our great responsibility to create a framework […] with the dual aim of fostering a greater sense of patriotic pride at home while enhancing the country’s image abroad.”

It should be intolerable for the freedoms of any academic subject to be impinged for ideological ends. If academic freedom is to mean anything, it should include the right to tell uneasy truths, get things wrong and have you work challenged by the highest academic standards.

There’s only one place to turn for PiS to find an example of best practice on how to challenge Gross’ research, and that is to the very body the party will grant authority to on deciding on what is and isn’t a breach of the law regarding “Polish death camps”. Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) produced several reports between 2000-03 challenging claims in Gross’ book on the Jedwabne massacre. It used research and reason — as opposed to censorship — to make the case that the historian didn’t get all the facts right. It found, for example, that German’s played a bigger part in the slaughter than Gross had claimed, and that the numbers killed were more likely to be around the 340 mark, rather than 1,600.

IPN should tread carefully, though. Any inconvenient truths with the potential to humiliate the Polish people could one day soon see it branded a “traitor”.


Ryan McChrystal is the assistant editor, online at Index on Censorship

Swift changes to media landscape set Poland further down the partisan road

9 January, 2016: An anti-PiS demonstration in Kraków by the Committee of the Defence of the Democracy calling for a free media. Credit: Shutterstock / praszkiewicz

Poland has undergone rapid changes since the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) won the overall majority in the Sejm, the country’s parliament, in October 2015, and independent media hasn’t been spared.

On the evening of 28 December, draft legislation to change the management of public media was submitted to the Sejm and hurriedly passed with little public discussion and despite the objections of EU and media monitoring watchdogs — including Index on Censorship. The bill was signed into law in early January 2016.

Even before the parliamentary debate on the bill, PiS MP Beata Mazurek let it be known that it was her “hope that, at last, the media narration which we disagree with, will cease to exist”.

Crucial sections of the media law empowered the government to appoint editors-in-chief at public radio and stations, Polskie Radio and TVP, rather than holding an open competition for the roles. Furthermore, the law ended member rotation on public television’s watchdog committee and symbolically re-branded “public media” as “national media”.

Immediately after enacting the law, the government named Jacek Kurski — a long-standing PiS member who represented the party in the Sejm between 2005-2009 and in the European Parliament until 2014 — as the new chair of TVP. He promised a “fast recovery” of public media on taking the role.

In speaking about the law, PiS representatives have said that the media had been under heavy influence of the Civic Platform (PO), the former governing party. In an interview with the Catholic Radio Maryja and TV station Trwam, defence minister Antoni Macierewicz said: “PiS does not take freedom of speech away from anyone, it is much rather the opposite: it returns the freedom of speech to the majority of the population, which had been deprived of it.”

The electoral success of PiS has been used to frame the changes to the media law as an expression of the public will.

The national daily Gazeta Wyborcza, which in 1989 was the first newspaper published outside the control of Poland’s then-communist government, and its workforce took these changes very seriously and set up an advertising campaign focused on the new legislation.

The changes to the media law raise a fundamental issue for media aligned to the political left or centre, as well as those with pro-European or liberal positions: financing.

Paweł Grzegorczyk, editor-in-chief of the online portal jagielloński24, conducted an analysis of public funding channelled to media outlets in recent years. In an interview with the Association of Polish Journalists (SDP), he said that Gazeta Wyborcza is likely to face a challenging financial future. Regardless of which party is in power, media funding is “usually steered, while not exclusively, by political motives”, he added.

He noted that right-wing publishers, under PO rule, had received less funding both with regards to the amount of publications (only two between 2009-14) and monetary value, than publications closer to the former government. While overall figures are not published, Gazeta Wyborcza received PLN 5 million ($1,284,076) between 2010-2014. Grzegorczyk said it wouldn’t be unreasonable to see this amount diminish in future.

Since PiS gained a majority, advertising by state institutions has soared in a number of media aligned with conservative political viewpoints, and the oil refinery company Orlen is sponsoring some news programming on Telewizja Republika, according to Grzegorczyk.

Commentators have been cautiously optimistic about the changes to the media law, calling it an opportunity to shake up dysfunctional structures in public media. “It was never as bad with the TVP as it is now, and it will never be as bad again,” wrote Stefan Turszczynski, a journalist and SDP member. Jadwiga Chmielowska wrote that Polish television has been destroyed in a 20-year process and the new media law “constitutes a chance” for change. Despite the optimism, some TVP journalists have already been dismissed.

So far commentary has focused the media law’s effect on Polish TV because Poles, on average, watch 4.23 hours a day, a Europe-wide high.

The Press Freedom Monitoring Centre (CMWP) issued a statement appealing “to editors-in-chief of public stations to pay particular attention that personnel changes would exclusively be motivated by criteria of professionalism of certain journalists or media employees”, rather than be based on family relations or political considerations.

In an interview with news-servis.pl Witold Świetlik, chair of CMWP, appeared unconcerned about the changes given that “the public media have never been that good in Poland”, and had increasingly been influenced by the surroundings of former President Bronisław Komorowski. Something had to change, and Świetlik was hopeful to see more pluralism of opinion than there was on TVP previously. One example he cites is the TVP talk show hosted by journalist Tomasz Lis, who was one of the first to leave the station following the introduction of the new media law. While Świetlik’s “fundamental doubt” concerned the fact that a politician is now leading the TV station, he noted that Kurski has so far “set up a rather neutral and pluralistic composition”, while admitting that the workforce was, “of course, predominantly made up from journalists of the conservative media”.

The position heard directly from associates of the SDP on the state of Polish public TV was very negative prior to the new law being passed. Former TVP1 departmental editor-in-chief Ewa Urbanska argues that the leasing structure set up a few years back had a detrimental impact on quality of coverage while a large body of administrative staff continued to be supported by public money, and, crucially, any production was left to commercial firms.

Outside criticism of the media landscape in Poland is rejected by some, such as the lawyer and journalist Andrzej Draminski. He is amused by the agitation of “oppositional groupings and various committees in defence of one thing or another (here you can insert any title as this really does not make a difference)” and warns the opposition not to buy in to the “sudden”, shallow interest of the West, and instead to present arguments of their own, “so far as they have any”.

The issues affecting journalism in Poland predate the changes to the media law. The industry has been grappling with accusations of becoming too simple and partisan from its own professionals. Marek Placzewski from the SDP says while there have been a few notable exceptions, the general trend in the press has been to recount right- or left-wing arguments without an attempt to move beyond these narratives.

This article was originally published on Index on Censorship.

Mapping Media Freedom

Click on the bubbles to view reports or double-click to zoom in on specific regions. The full site can be accessed at https://mappingmediafreedom.org/