Opinion: Why Poland’s rise on the Press Freedom Index is not necessarily a sign of progress

May 17, 2023 • Comment, Press Freedom, Recent • by

Poznań, Poland – September 14th 2021: A demonstration against a law that would ban non-European ownership of Polish media properties. Shutterstock image.

Opinion by media researcher and TVN24 journalist Michał Chlebowski

The latest edition of the Press Freedom Index, prepared by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), has placed Poland in the 57th place. This means that, compared to last year, Poland has risen nine places. To an external observer, it may suggest improvement in freedom of speech in Poland, but nothing could be further from the truth. Recent actions against private broadcasters prove that the ruling political party is using formal and informal tools to limit media freedom. One possible explanation for Poland’s latest ranking is that the situation in other countries is worsening at a faster rate. 


Since achieving its highest-ever position in 2015, ranking 18th on the Index, the country has seen a constant and rapid decline on the press freedom scale. Private media remain pluralistic and mostly independent, but the ruling party does not stop its attempts to control them. 


According to the 2023 RSF report: “After turning the public media into instruments of propaganda, the government has multiplied its attempts to change the editorial line of private media and control information on sensitive subjects.” 


“A ruthless attack on independent media”

In 2021, a state-owned oil company took over 20 of the 24 independent regional newspapers as a part of the so-called “repolonisation” process, which aims to reduce or eliminate foreign ownership of Polish outlets. In the same year, the National Broadcasting Council waited until the very last moment to renew the license of the American-owned TVN24 – the largest private news channel – and only did so after several weeks of protests and international pressure from many countries and institutions. 


But recent events prove that the ruling Law and Justice Party is still pressuring private media outlets. The chairman of the National Broadcasting Council, appointed by the ruling party, fined TOK FM radio PLN 80,000 (EUR 17,500) because a journalist compared a controversial student’s book to a textbook for Hitlerjugend – a Nazi-organised youth movement. Responding to the decision, TOK FM, known for presenting liberal views and criticising the right-wing government for its conservative changes, such as restricting abortion law, said: “We believe that this is a ruthless attack on the independent media, which is a platform for exchanging opinions in a socially important public debate.” 


In another article, the broadcaster’s Editor in Chief, Kamila Ceran, raised concerns about its license renewal: “Our license expires on November 3. If the National Broadcasting Council has not decided to extend it by then, we will have to turn off the transmitters.”


Fierce political debate

The chairman of the National Broadcasting Council has also targeted other private media, including TVN24. The station is being investigated in relation to a recently aired documentary. The film claimed that when the late Pope John Paul II was the bishop of Krakow, he not only knew about child abuse in his archdiocese but also helped cover it up by transferring priests involved from one parish to another. TVN’s reporting of these issues divided political leaders, provoking a fierce debate between those who condemn the documentary and those who want to reassess the Pope’s legacy. 


According to a Reuters story, right-wing politicians from the ruling party perceive TVN’s reporting as a “left-wing plot to discredit a figure who is at the core of the nation’s identity”. The National Broadcasting Council said they are investigating whether the TVN documentary violated Media Law, in particular, the Broadcasting Act’s non-discrimination rule and its section stating that “programs or other broadcasts shall respect the religious beliefs of viewers and/or listeners, particularly the Christian system of values”. 


In TVN’s response to the investigation, the broadcaster stressed that the documentary is the result of many months of work, based on reliable sources and testimonies of victims and meets all the principles of responsible journalism. The investigation has not yet been concluded but may result in a severe financial penalty. 


Of course, with Poland’s general elections scheduled for later this year, the start of a major political change may be around the corner. The polls indicate that the right-wing government may lose power after an eight-year reign. While much is at stake, and propaganda from public media may not guarantee a victory, the Law and Justice party may want to use their force to silence the private press. By any measure, this year will be extremely challenging for journalists in Poland, despite its slight improvement in the Press Freedom Index.


 Author’s disclaimer:

The author of this article is a media researcher and journalist employed by TVN24. All of the opinions presented in this article are his alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of the employers and organisations he cooperates with. 


Opinions expressed on this website are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views, policies or positions of the EJO or the organisations with which they are affiliated.

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