Political pressure is part of everyday life in the media in Poland. The private television station TVN is now in the pillory again. He has been a thorn in the side of the national-conservative PiS (Law and Justice) government for years.

In a September 2022 documentary, the broadcaster revealed manipulations by ex-Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz (PiS) while working in the parliamentary subcommittee he chairs to investigate the 2010 air disaster in Smolensk, Russia.

At that time, a plane with 96 occupants on board crashed in thick fog on approach to land. All passengers, including then-Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and high-ranking politicians and officials, perished.

Right from the start, Macierewicz advocated the thesis of a Russian assassination attempt on the Polish elite. And this despite a government investigation in the summer of 2011 showing that the crash was due to human error and bad weather conditions and that “third parties” were not involved.

However, Antoni Macierewicz wants to prove the opposite with his parliamentary committee of inquiry. The Russian conspiracy theory has become a tenet of supporters of the current government. PiS boss Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the twin brother of the president who died in the accident, keeps repeating the accusation.

In his documentary on the case, TVN reporter Piotr Swierczek drew on records, photos and international expert reports on the Smolensk disaster. Although commissioned by Macierewicz’s investigative committee, they were never included in its reports, including the final report. These materials completely rule out an assassination attempt. Some committee members also testify in the documentary that their own research was manipulated or used selectively in the sense of Macierewicz’s preconceived theses.

At Macierewicz’s request, the National Broadcasting Council is now investigating whether the report violated the Polish media law through “possible dissemination of false information and activities that run counter to Poland’s national interests and endanger public security”. The investigation could result in hefty fines and even the revocation of TVN’s broadcasting license, which expires in 2024.

As early as 2021, the broadcaster was threatened with the withdrawal of its license when the PiS wanted to reduce foreign capital in the Polish media with a new law. In the end, it didn’t come to that, also because Poland’s government didn’t want to mess with its ally, the United States. As early as 2018, the then US ambassador in Warsaw got involved in the Polish debate and expressed concern about the PiS’s planned “re-Polonization” of the media.

Meanwhile, as part of the “re-Polonization” of Polish media, the Orlen oil company has bought the local media publisher “Polska Press” from the German “Verlagsgruppe Passau”. The Polish state is the largest shareholder in Orlen. This gave the government virtual control of 20 out of 24 local newspapers, 120 regional weeklies and 500 online portals. The PiS has other methods for media that cannot be “re-polonized” because they do not have foreign owners. The authorities are not allowed to subscribe to or place advertisements in the relevant newspapers, with serious financial consequences, especially for local media.

Before the upcoming parliamentary elections in autumn, through which the PiS wants to secure its third legislative period in a row, legal attacks on media critical of the government are increasing.

The liberal Gazeta Wyborcza is currently the subject of more than 100 lawsuits in various courts, most of which have been brought by government politicians and members of state-controlled companies. “These are mostly completely unfounded allegations against our articles. Complaints are filed even if they have no chance of success,” Bartosz Wielinski, deputy editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, told DW.

“For example, if you write an article about the head of the PiS-affiliated oil company Orlen, you can immediately assume that mail will soon arrive from the group’s lawyers,” says the journalist. First would come threats and pre-trial subpoenas. “And if you ignore them and don’t take into account the often absurd and completely false objections to your text, then you get tons of documents from the law firm that you have to deal with.”

It’s not about winning a process, but about “tying up the opponent through the fight”. If the attacked journalist constantly answered the legal letters and appeared at pre-trial appointments, he would no longer be able to do his job. And the capacities of the newspaper lawyers would eventually come to an end – that’s the hope of the plaintiffs. “It’s a typical slapping campaign,” says Wielinski.

The abbreviation Slapp stands for the English “Strategic lawsuit against public participation”. Their aim is to intimidate journalists or activists. Long processes are intended to wear them down. Lawsuits are often filed even when it is clear that they have no chance of success.

The state television broadcaster TVP is joining the smear campaign against independent media. Bartosz Wielinski of Gazeta Wyborcza was also personally attacked. Two TVP moderators called him an “ethnic German”, which was intended to defame him as an anti-Polish journalist. Unlike the case of the critical TVN documentary, such actions by the state broadcaster are tolerated by the National Broadcasting Council.

In the election campaign, the PiS wants to strengthen state television and radio, which will receive the equivalent of 600 million euros from the government this year, even more. According to the latest draft law, operators of pay-TV, for example, are to be obliged to offer all five channels of the state-run television station. All other previous mandatory channels, including TVN, will be removed from the mandatory list.

Author: Monika Sieradzka

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The original of this article “Massive intimidation campaign against Polish media” comes from Deutsche Welle.