The Decline of Poland’s Press Freedom should serve as a Warning to all of Europe

Linus Hoeller, Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism

Historical overview of the region’s democratization and backsliding

When the “communist” dictatorships of Eastern Europe fell, one by one, in 1989 – and, with the exception of Romania, in a remarkably peaceful fashion – western euphoria was great. These countries and their people, newly “liberated” from their world-war-two-era liberator’s sphere of influence, would now follow in the footsteps of their western neighbors, developing capitalist economies, openness to trade and the world, and, most importantly, democratic institutions. The general consensus in the West appeared to be one that this was to be the unquestionable outcome, that there was truly only one way this could go. Famously, political scientist Francis Fukuyama hailed the fall of the USSR as the “End of History” altogether[1].

Three decades later, we know that the western victory lap was premature at best. History, for one, decidedly did not end, nor did the U.S. become a global hegemon. But more crucially for the topic at hand, the democracies of Central and Eastern Europe, though having made incredible advances early on, are increasingly showing troubling vital signs[2].

One of these vital signs is the freedom of the press, a key foundational principle for any democracy. The uncensored access to accurate and reliable information is crucial to maintain an informed public that is able to make intelligent decisions in elections and is capable of holding its leaders accountable. Accountability as a key dynamic of democracy is the exact point where the news media wields the greatest political and societal influence, acting as a watchdog for illegal and questionable behavior from those in positions of powers, and presenting any such findings to the public, allowing voters to arrive at their own judgement over whether this warrants re-election, electing an opponent or even removing the official or party from their position altogether. While democratic politicians accept and value this function of the free press, naturally, and this is no surprise either, the press’ influence can be a thorn in the side of some rulers.

In Eastern Europe, the fall of communism brought about a flourishing of free press. Not only did western media outlets have unprecedented access the countries, but domestic papers which had previously been either directly controlled by the ruling parties or had to very carefully toe a government-sanctioned line were now free from editorial influence and had the opportunity to experiment and learn the ways of the free press. Citizen journalists no longer faced harsh prison sentences and farce trials, and it was suddenly possible and comparatively uncomplicated to found new media companies (and for foreigners to buy them up). The countries’ free media grew alongside its democratic institutions, and like the latter, were modeled closely on western examples; The countries had soon reached levels of both compatible with EU standards, resulting in the formerly “socialist” countries Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania formally being accepted into the bloc. Democracy-minded and liberal leaders played a large role in pushing for progress in these countries, and they generally willingly put up with and encouraged the development of a free press – even if it may have been critical of them at times.

The tide began to change around 2010, however. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán – a former freedom fighter – came to power and led the country down an authoritarian path. He remains in power today and has successfully degraded his country’s democracy so far that Freedom House in 2019 demoted its status from “free” to “partly free” as the only EU country[3]. Five years later, the far-right “Law and Justice” party, PiS, came to power 2015 in Poland, following Hungary’s example and closely allying itself with Orbán’s Fidesz party. In both countries, the independence of the courts was attacked, as was the work of NGOs, civil society and, ultimately, the functioning of democracy as a whole. Press freedom has suffered severely in both cases.

Examining Poland

Poland’s press freedom has declined seriously in the past half decade. Reporters Without Borders (RSF), who issue an annual index and ranking of press freedom around the world, had listed the country as 18th globally in 2015. Five years later, it had dropped to 62nd [4], [5]. This precipitous decline can be traced back directly to the actions of the ruling Law and Justice Party.

Some of the very first actions PiS took after coming to power aimed at curtailing the independence of publicly funded media by way of a series of media laws. The public broadcasters were to be transformed into “national” media, which in PiS-speak meant that they ought to parrot the party line. A large number of firings and layoffs ensued, including of prominent TV figures and critical editors; the vacant positions were filled with loyalists of the ruling party [6]. Further, an independent control commission – the National Council of Radio Broadcasting and Television – was abolished and replaced instead by the PiS-friendly and largely PiS-appointed national media council. As of 2020, publicly funded media are consistently spewing party propaganda and have occasionally made international headlines for making or repeating outlandish accusations such as, recently, German election interference [7]. Classic propagandistic methods are heavily at play, with fearmongering and hate speech being commonplace on public television [8], as well as misinformation being rampant and readily repeated. As Stanford’s Internet Observatory puts it: “PiS-controlled state media, especially TVP, the largest broadcaster in Poland, have taken to pushing dubious narratives and using misleading images and footage as part of their coverage, which increasingly resembles pro-PiS propaganda.”[9] TVP has repeatedly been accused of misrepresenting or outright falsifying, as well as faking quotes, manipulating interviews, broadcasting misleading or edited images, and falsifying facts[10], such as most recently the number of participants in widespread protests against the government’s new near-complete ban on abortions[11]. Freedom House, in its annual Freedom in the World report, summarized that TVP “promotes the government’s message on topics ranging from peaceful antigovernment protests, which it depicts as attempted coups, to critical nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which are portrayed as agents of the opposition or foreign forces.”[12]

Independent media outlets have also been targeted by the ruling party. Due to their nature – operating independently from the government – PiS has found it more difficult to take direct influence over the editorial content than was the case with public broadcasters. However, like its Hungarian ally, the party has found other ways of exerting pressure. The increasing government control of the courts has proven especially useful for doing so, as they have in several instances ruled against independent news outlets in politically motivated lawsuits. Article 212 of the criminal code is particularly popular to sue journalists under, according to RSF. The article is a law against defamation and carries a maximum sentence of up to one year in prison[13]. The fact that it has been used successfully several times to stifle critical reporting – even if courts tend to have journalists fired, rather than imprisoned – has led to a degree of self-censorship, RSF reports.[14]

That being said, this self-censorship is far from complete, and likely far from what PiS would like it to be. The media landscape in Poland remains pluralistic and a wide variety of media outlets, in print and on the airwaves, presents a variety of different views – ranging from staunchly religious radio stations (such as Radio Maryja, which receives government funding) , over publicly-funded PiS propaganda and independent, balanced media outlets all the way to clearly oppositional publications. Independent and freelance journalists are also able to operate and though they do face pushback from authorities and PiS loyalists, they still play an important role in on-the-ground reporting, as was recently made evident during the anti-abortion-ban protests that swept across the country. When compared to Hungary, the EU’s other significantly backsliding democracy and one in which civil liberties have been much more severely curtailed than in Poland, Poland’s media landscape appears especially diverse. However: A diverse media landscape doesn’t mean that there aren’t attacks on that plurality or on press freedom as a whole. And Hungary had five years of a head start.

In many ways, Hungary has served as an example for PiS’ tightening the screws on Poland. One of Fidesz’ preferred methods of exerting control over Hungary’s private media has been the withholding of government-funded advertisements from such publications. In Hungary, such advertising revenue is a crucial part of many publications’ income and therefore gives the government a considerable amount of leverage. The withholding of such funds from critical publications has led to self-censorship and also to the financial death of some of the news outlets. While government advertising plays a smaller role in Poland, it still has an impact which mustn’t be neglected. The Heinrich Böll Stiftung reports, for instance, that government-owned oil company Orlen and other large, state-owned companies no longer buy advertising space in PiS-critical media. The foundation also reports that critical newspapers have all but vanished from state-run venues like post offices and Orlen petrol stations[15]. Further, government ministries have been “encouraged” to unsubscribe from newspapers which don’t follow the PiS party line, resulting in a sudden and significant drop in subscription numbers – and thus income – for non-conforming newspapers[16].

PiS has also shown efforts to try to gain more direct editorial control over private publications, however, has so far had relatively limited success in doing so. One key way that they aim to simultaneously discredit and threaten many of the private publications is through the debate about “renationalization,” which feeds on the fact that a large portion of Polish media is owned by foreign entities, mostly from Germany (a large number of newspapers) and, to a lesser extent, from the U.S. (such as the important private TV station TVN)[17]. There have not yet been any serious attempts to “renationalize” such companies, likely owing to the political influence of the EU (and its funding, as Poland is a net receiver of EU funds), and Washington. However, as the ruling party gets more brazen – or as it sees its grip on power weakening, as currently appears to be the case – this unspoken rule has every potential to be broken; The government has readily created a certain level of public appetite for such measures, and the idea has been circulating for many years now.

There are some less visible challenges for journalists’ work on the ground in Poland, too. For instance, some have reported it being difficult or impossible to interview politicians from the ruling party if their previous reporting had been critical of PiS. Occasionally, there are reports of journalists being met with insults or sometimes even threats. Legal actions against journalists have increased since PiS took power, including brought by PiS politicians and government-friendly organizations themselves, mostly under libel laws. Poland has a few laws restricting freedom of speech; In addition to the aforementioned article 212 there is also a law prohibiting blasphemy, which can result in up to two years’ imprisonment, and one that forbids insulting the President, under a penalty of up to three years in prison[18]. Costly legal battles have resulted in some self-censorship, with already cash-strapped independent publications shying away from potentially “dangerous” reporting in order not to go under[19].

PiS has also proven effective in mobilizing supporters to push back on government-critical reporting online in a decentralized manner. This is not necessarily a manifestation of authoritarian behavior, as political discourse is something that democracies ought to foster. However, similar to what has been the case in the U.S., the political discourse has increasingly become brutalized and unproductive, with threats being commonplace.

I have personally gotten to experience the wrath of Polish so-called “internet trolls” while reporting; Dariusz Stola, the head of the POLIN museum (a museum dedicated to the holocaust) came to speak in Evanston, and I reported on it in the name of the Daily Northwestern. PiS had earlier passed a law that prohibited reporters from calling former concentration camps located in Poland “Polish concentration camps” (or any variant of that) as well as suggesting any complacency or collaboration on the part of Poles and imposed severe punishments for it. I was aware of these developments and naturally aware of the fact that Poland was a victim of Nazi Germany, however, I was also aware that the law was being used to push revisionist history and stifle independent academic research that might interfere with the national myth that the ruling party hoped to portray. So, I decided to ask Dr. Stola about his opinion on it and include it in my piece. The next day, I received several hate-filled emails from Polish people and Americans of Polish descent which had the clear aim of intimidating me. The Daily’s social media presence and comment sections were similarly flooded with enraged comments, as was my Twitter account. My article had been picked up by a PiS-loyal organization specifically dedicated to finding cases of “misrepresentation of Polish history” online and been published in several Facebook groups of willing “trolls” alongside with my personal contact information.

While this was a one-off situation for me, reporters covering touchy subjects are often faced with such actions on a routine basis, which might result in them thinking twice about publishing a truthful article or representing facts as they see fit and without self-censorship. The organization Human Rights First reported as early as 2017: “[There has been a] sharp rise in xenophobic violence and online hate speech taking root in Poland since PiS took power, including forms that target NGOs, journalists, and opposition figures.”[20] Especially independent and freelance journalists may be deterred or intimidated by such practices. The ruling Law and Justice party has not made any move to condone such online actions, and it would be surprising, as the intimidation campaigns align with PiS’ interests – such as Poland’s judges being “harassed into obedience,” as the German Marshall Fund of the United States reported earlier this year[21].

The repression of Polish media and civil society may not yet be as far along as is the case in Hungary, but the speed at which dissent has been stifled in Poland is shocking, and especially so for an EU country. With the President Andrzej Duda recently narrowly securing a second term in office and PiS having been able to hold and expand their absolute majority in the very important lower house of parliament last year, it remains in a position to do great harm to Poland’s already damaged democracy. There is no reason to believe that the ruling party will reverse its course on the freedom of the press, and so it must be assumed that there will be more and more restrictions – formal and informal – on the work of journalists, both domestic and foreign. In a democracy that was once commonly accepted as consolidated and seen as a prime success story, these are extremely troubling and disappointing signs. They become even more concerning when taking into account that Poland is not alone in the EU with these trends – Hungary, too, has followed the same path and together, they are able to prevent the EU from taking any real action against their antidemocratic doings as one will always stop any disciplinary measures against the other from passing. Most recently, the two countries blocked the EU’s seven-year budget from passing (any single member state may veto) over a clause that tied EU funding to respect for the rule of law.

While the Polish example is currently developing, it is also already far progressed. The experiences and lessons taken from the country can be applied to better understand, predict and potentially counteract other cases of countries embarking on a dangerous trajectory of eroding the freedom of the press and the ability for news media to operate.

Applying the Polish example elsewhere

For 14 consecutive years, Freedom House has seen a global erosion of freedom[22]. Along with it comes a decline in the media’s ability to report freely and accurately. Europe, especially Eastern and some of Central Europe, has been one of the regions that have seen such declines.

While Hungary and Poland are the most visible and most progressed examples of illiberal tendencies taking over and press freedom being actively infringed upon, more and more countries’ actions have caused alarm bells to go off in the headquarters of media freedom watchdogs. The other two member nations of the Visegrád group, for instance – Czechia and Slovakia – have had their own issues regarding press freedom. They are currently ranked 40th and 33rd, respectively. Both have seen increasingly harsh rhetoric against the media coming from top echelons of the government, and the ownership of important media assets by individuals with ties to important political parties or other actors (such as in the Czech case, the Chinese government) have caused concern[23] [24].

My own country, Austria, long regarded as one of the most stable and advanced democracies in the world, suffered significant setbacks in press freedom recently too, while a coalition of the right (ÖVP) and the far-right (FPÖ) ruled the country following the 2017 election. Along with openly preferential treatment of certain news outlets, there were leaked reports of a directive by the ministry of interior – which was under the control of the far-right – to avoid releasing “any more information than the legal minimum” to journalists of critical news outlets.[25] The affair which ultimately brought the premature end of this ruling coalition in 2019 was partly centered around press freedom, too: In secretly recorded video material, the leader of the far-right party was seen suggesting taking control of the country’s largest newspaper by “influencing the right people,” among other outrageous plans.[26] While the far right no longer is in the governing coalition and has since been replaced by the green party, the senior partner of the coalition remains the center-right ÖVP, which had previously defended almost all of its former far-right partner’s actions and also shown a certain amount of admiration for the Visegrád states and Hungary in particular.

Poland’s case should, and has, served as a stark warning of how easy it is for the freedom of the press and, by extension, democracy as a whole to be eroded even in countries that have a well-established and seemingly solid democracy. The fact that Austrian press freedom noticeably and measurably declined during just two years of an ÖVP-FPÖ government should further underscore this point. The similarity in some of the methods used in all of the states, be it “illiberal democracies” Poland and Hungary, or established and well-regarded democracies such as Czechia or Austria points to the importance of closely watching and intimately understanding the happenings in any of these states to recognize them when they take place somewhere else. None of the governing parties operate in a vacuum, after all; they, too, see and learn from their neighbors and friends, and illiberal ideas and methods can spread across borders like a disease.

Finally, it is worth noting that this erosion of freedoms and of press freedom in particular has happened at the hands of right-wing parties in government in all of the aforementioned countries. Partly, politics hostile to the media have openly been part of their party program and helped them get elected. Support for right-of-center parties across Europe is currently on the rise, and support for the far-right has reached worrying levels in a number of countries[27]. Judging by the trends we have been able to observe in Europe and around the world, there is ample reason to believe that the rise of these ideologies will result in further disregard for media freedom and civil liberties. Learning from cases like Poland’s, however, will allow us to better understand the mechanisms that authoritarian parties may use to suppress dissent and independent media, and enable observers to notice such patterns more effectively and perhaps earlier on, giving civil society and actors like the EU more opportunity to react and counteract these dangerous trends.

Hungary seems to have been written off by many human rights organizations and even the EU itself; there is little belief that there will be a return from the current state of affairs anytime soon. Poland, however, is currently at a crossroads. Its democracy has been heavily damaged and the freedom of the press impaired, but neither are dead yet. The near future promises to be of crucial importance for the future of the country’s independent media and democracy. Crucially, the EU must find a way to exert pressure on governments that violate its foundational principles.

If Poland falls the way Hungary did, there is little reason to believe that other countries in the region won’t do the same in future. This could call into question the status of press freedom throughout the continent that is currently still regarded a beacon of the free press.


[1] Fukuyama, Francis. The “End of History?”. United States Institute of Peace, 1989.

[2] Cianetti, Licia, et al. “Rethinking ‘Democratic Backsliding’ in Central and Eastern Europe – Looking beyond Hungary and Poland.” East European Politics, vol. 34, no. 3, 18 July 2018, doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/21599165.2018.1491401.

[3] Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2019, freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/Feb2019_FH_FITW_2019_Report_ForWeb-compressed.pdf.

[4] “World Press Freedom Index.” RSF, rsf.org/en/ranking/2015.

[5] “2020 World Press Freedom Index: Reporters Without Borders.” RSF, rsf.org/en/ranking/2020.

[6] Stolarek, Joanna Maria, et al. “Poland: Freedom of the Press in Free Fall: Heinrich Böll Stiftung: Brussels Office – European Union.” Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, 8 May 2020, eu.boell.org/en/2020/05/08/poland-freedom-press-free-fall.

[7] Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-03/poland-accuses-germany-of-meddling-in-its-election-via-tabloid.

[8] “Polish Public Broadcaster Peddles Government Hate Speech in Presidential Election Run-up: Reporters without Borders.” RSF, 24 June 2020, rsf.org/en/news/polish-public-broadcaster-peddles-government-hate-speech-presidential-election-run-1.

[9] “Poland: Presidential Election 2020 Scene-Setter.” FSI, 28 Jan. 2020, cyber.fsi.stanford.edu/io/news/poland-scene-setter.

[10] likewise

[11] Kilian, Antonina. “Talking about the State of Poland.” 23 Nov. 2020.

[12] “Poland.” Freedom House, freedomhouse.org/country/poland/freedom-world/2020.

[13] “Poland : Further Decline: Reporters without Borders.” RSF, rsf.org/en/poland.

[14] likewise

[15] Stolarek, Joanna Maria, et al. “Poland: Freedom of the Press in Free Fall: Heinrich Böll Stiftung: Brussels Office – European Union.” Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, 8 May 2020, eu.boell.org/en/2020/05/08/poland-freedom-press-free-fall.

[16] “Poland.” Freedom House, freedomhouse.org/country/poland/freedom-world/2020.

[17] likewise

[18] “Poland.” Freedom House, freedomhouse.org/country/poland/freedom-world/2019.

[19] Joanna Maria Stolarek. “Polen: Pressefreiheit Im Freien Fall.” Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, 30 Apr. 2020, www.boell.de/de/2020/04/30/polen-im-freien-fall.

[20] Human Rights First, 2017, Poland’s New Front – A Government’s War against Civil Society, www.humanrightsfirst.org/sites/default/files/Poland-Report-August-2017.pdf.

[21] “Poland’s Judges Are Being ‘Harassed into Obedience.’” The German Marshall Fund of the United States, 5 Mar. 2020, www.gmfus.org/blog/2020/03/03/polands-judges-are-being-harassed-obedience.

[22] “Explore the Map.” Freedom House, freedomhouse.org/explore-the-map?type=fiw&year=2020.

[23] “Slovakia : Political Vice Tightens: Reporters without Borders.” RSF, rsf.org/en/slovakia.

[24] “Czech Republic : Increasing Media Concentration: Reporters without Borders.” RSF, rsf.org/en/czech-republic.

[25] “Innenministerium Beschränkt Infos Für ‘Kritische Medien.’” DER STANDARD, www.derstandard.at/story/2000087988184/innenministerium-beschraenkt-infos-fuer-kritische-medien.

[26] Matzinger, Lukas. “Die Wichtigsten Zitate Aus Den Strache-Videos.” FALTER 20/19 – FALTER.at, Falter, 17 May 2019, www.falter.at/zeitung/20190517/die-wichtigsten-zitate-aus-den-ibiza-videos.

[27] “POLITICO Poll of Polls – Polling from across Europe. Updated Daily.” POLITICO, www.politico.eu/europe-poll-of-polls/.

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