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Polish government moves in on media

Purchase of regional publisher Polska Press strengthens government control of media landscape

Poland’s government came a step closer to their goal of “re-polonising” the media sector with the purchase on December 7 of the regional publisher Polska Press. Previously owned by German publisher Verlagsgruppe Passau, the group was a heavyweight on Poland’s regional and local media scene.

“Polish oil company Orlen is taking over the Polska Press publishing house. We will have over 20 out of 24 regional dailies published in Poland and nearly 120 local weeklies, as well as 500 online sites,” announced the state-controlled corporation’s president Daniel Obajtek. “Thanks to the transaction, we will gain access to nearly 17.5 million users.”

The energy firm explained the move as part of the expansion of its retail network, an unusual move by business standards. Critics have no doubt about the motives. “Orlen has no competence in the media sector, the acquisition of this publishing house is not part of any well-thought-out strategy,” Warsaw University lecturer Tadeusz Kowalski told Polish portal OKO.press.

Kowalski explained the likely outcome would include a “change in managerial teams at the taken over media, or issuing orders regarding the editorial line: we write about this, we don’t write about that, or we write about it like this.”

The PiS government [the acronym stands for Law and Justice in Polish – Ed.] have long threatened to “polonise” the media sector, reducing the share of outlets owned by foreign capital in favour of Polish ones.

Major players in Poland are owned by US and German holdings in particular, including the second biggest online portal Onet.pl (owned by German-Swiss Ringier Axel Springer) and the biggest independent TV station TVN (owned by the US mass media firm Discovery Inc.).

Borys Budka, head of the largest opposition party, told news agency Reuters that “through state-owned companies, with the money of Polish taxpayers, (PiS) is trying to take control of independent media.”

The Polska Press purchase is but the latest move driving a trend of deteriorating press freedom in Poland, which dropped an astounding 44 positions in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom rankings between 2015 and 2020 – the worst in all of Europe.

More from The Fix: 2015 vs 2020 Changes in Press Freedom Rankings across Europe

Amongst others, the decline is driven by an overall hostility to free press, threats of nationalization and turning the public broadcaster into a government mouthpiece. “Polish state television makes Fox News look like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation,” Guardian columnist Timothy Garton Ash wrote back in June 2020.

The government has also used advertising budgets of state-owned companies to favour pro-government media and punish unruly ones.

Bartosz Wielinski, a correspondent for Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s biggest daily and a thorn in the government’s side, explained to Emerging Europe how almost overnight state-owned firms shifted their budgets to smaller and lower quality players. As a result, Gazeta Wyborzca shifted its efforts to reader revenue (they succeeded, the outlet has more than 200,000 paying subscribers).

“They wanted to take the oxygen out of us, suffocate us,” he adds. “They failed, but it was a hard blow.”

More from The Fix: RFE/RL Reopens in Hungary Amid Press Freedom Decline

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