Poland is coming under criticism for a media black-out instituted on its border with Belarus since September. As a reaction to the increasing tensions and intimidation of reporters, the Media Freedom Rapid Response – which counts Article 19, the International Press Institute and European Federation of Journalists and Free Press unlimited – called the government to respect the free flow of information.

The crisis first erupted this summer, after thousands of asylum-seekers who traveled from the Middle East started appearing on the Poland-Belarus border. Since the beginning of the crisis 11 of them have reportedly died. 

Worryingly, journalists are not allowed to report from the area under a “state of emergency” introduced by the Polish government. As a result, international audiences have to rely on information provided by Polish and Belarusian authorities. 

Poland first declared a state of emergency at the start of September, later extending it to December 2nd in October. Polish Prime-Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stated that the media presence would only foster the crisis as they would be “susceptible to the influence of Belarusian and Russian fake news”.

Tadeusz Michrowski from Outriders, a Polish media specialised in international reporting, is among the journalists who have been covering the crisis. 

“The ban fits the internal Polish battle of narratives. For years politicians of the ruling party were very vocal about media that criticize the government”, Michrowski told The Fix. He sees Poland’s decision on press ban as “dictated by the pettiness of some politicians who fail to understand that having a voice from Poland is more important than controlling it”. 

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A manufactured crisis

Thousands of migrants and refugees have been stranded alongside the Poland-Belarus border after being denied entrance into the EU. Belarus leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been blamed for smuggling migrants to the EU’s eastern border with the intention of stimulating a political crisis within the union. 

As stated by the Polish border agency, there have been more than 5,000 cases of migrants crossing the border. Poland used water cannons to stop the refugees from attacking Polish guards with stones and other objects. Reportedly, last week many of the refugees started to leave the camps at the border as Belarus promised to provide a shelter near the Kuznica checkpoint. 

The Polish government has been criticized for ill-treatment towards refugees and violation of fundamental principles of international law by pushing them back to Belarus. Others have pointed to the EU’s immigration policies, which tend to leave it dependent on cutting deals with dubious regimes on its borders, as the culprit (other than, of course, Lukashenka, who is clearly exploiting the situation).

Yet Poland has also faced criticism for making this a press freedom issue. While the crisis was unfolding, Poland introduced a local state of emergency that prohibits media activities on their side of the border. The state of emergency also restricts NGOs and international aid workers from accessing the territory. 

The Poland-Belarus border territory. Source: Maxar, via Outriders

An unnecessary crackdown on media

Polish media denounced the government’s decision in a joint statement, signed by 30 publishers and media organizations. For Michrowski, such a joint effort is unprecedented in the very polarized Polish media landscape. 

“Even some of the government-related media or media traditionally considered pro-government (like Radio Maryja) gave some degree of criticism towards this idea of the ban on media”, he noted. 

The Polish press ban was condemned and assessed as a severe violation of press freedom by human rights organizations. Reporters Without Borders declared ”a press freedom state of emergency”, in Poland and referred to the government’s ban on media as “arbitrary”. 

On Thursday last week, two Polish and Czech photojournalists claimed to be verbally abused and handcuffed by the Polish forces while they were taking photos from the areas near the border which they were allowed to access, Al Jazeera reported. The journalists claimed they were legally reporting from the area. 

According to the Polish Constitution, the state of emergency can only be prolonged twice. However, reportedly, a new law is to be enacted that will regulate media access to the border. According to Ryszard Terlecki, a member of the Polish Sejm, the border will be open to the nationwide publishers but not to the local ones – an opportunity to spread division and play favorites, according to critics.

More from The Fix: Poland, Hungary, Belarus attacks on media freedom

A deteriorating press freedom environment

The Polish border press ban comes amid a rapid democratic backsliding. According to the V-dem Institute’s 2021 report, Poland is the world’s most rapidly backsliding state (downgraded from ‘liberal democracy’ to ‘electoral democracy’). This has not left press freedom unaffected – the country fell to a record low 64th position out of 180 in the 2021 Reporters Without Borders ranking. (It reached a record high of 18th in 2015).

Since taking power in late 2015, a nationalist, socially conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party has enjoyed increasing power and influence over state media. On November 18th the public broadcaster TVP launched a 24/7 English-language television channel called TVP World. It’s goal is to “offer a Polish perspective on key issues”. 

The government has also moved into the private media space. Last December the state-controlled oil company Orlen bought publishing house Polska Press. The latter owns 20 out of 24 regional dailies published in Poland, nearly 120 local weeklies, as well as 500 online sites. Simultaneously, state-run companies have cut ad budgets for media that don’t toe the line.

The government’s avowed goal is the “re-polonisation” of the media sector – something that became abundantly clear when the culture minister called on all public companies to buy media properties. According to Reporters Without Borders, in the Polish context, “‘Repolonising’ means censoring”.

More from The Fix: Polish government moves in on media

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash