Media pluralism is an important component of a thriving democracy – but recent years saw media concentration becoming a growing problem throughout Europe. The situation is particularly visible in Poland; the country is ranked third in terms of risks to media pluralism in the Media Pluralism Monitor (MPM) 2022 General Ranking.

What is the media landscape in Poland – and what should be done to alleviate the problem? We analysed key takeaways from the MPM 2022, which is compiled by the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom.

What is the Media Pluralism Monitor?

Every year for the past five years, the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CPMF) has published its Media Pluralism Monitor (MPM), a report funded by the European Commission designed to assess the health of the media ecosystems in Europe.

This year’s report was published in June and covers 32 countries: 27 EU member states and five candidates. You can read and download the whole report and the report specific to Poland, supervised by Professor Beata Klimkiewicz.

The central team, based in Florence in Italy, works with local teams across the world. The report groups 200 variables, gathered with a questionnaire, into four main areas analysed: Fundamental Protection, Market Plurality, Political Independence and Social Inclusiveness.

The media freedom picture in Poland

Here’s a striking comparison: in 2015, Poland was ranked 18th in the world by the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index; by 2021, it fell to the 64th place. The shift is mostly caused by the right-wing government of the ruling party Law and Justice, which came to power in 2015.

Since 2015, the Polish government has been interfering with the private market, and private companies are often the victims of SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), new defamation cases and lawsuits.

Notable reforms changing the orientation of media policy include the “National Media Council Act”, which was passed by the Parliament in June of 2016. The National Media Council, a government agency established in 2016, has the right to hire and fire staff for state television and radio. 

State-owned media are indirectly controlled by the regulator KRRiT (the National Broadcasting Council), whose members are elected by the President and the Parliament. 

Concerns have been heightened by the 2022 findings: Poland has joined the MPM “high-risk band”. According to the MPM report, market plurality and political independence “stand for a high risk”. There has also been an increase in terms of “risks to media pluralism” between 2020 and 2021. 

The propensity of public media in Poland to serve as propaganda tools, with key stakeholders using the media as a means to their end and media trying to define the relations between the state and the citizens (as was published in the journal East European Politics), is a topic of worries for the European authorities and many Polish journalists.

“The government won a proper majority in parliament [in 2015], and I remember a lot of anxiety as to what they would eventually do with that,” says Artur, who works in Poland for an international press agency and asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorised by the employer to comment on the issue publicly, about the way the 2015’s elections influenced the media landscape. “The anxiety quickly proved justified as many laws were passed, sometimes in dubious ways. […] With regards to the media itself, there were a lot of controversies.”

The issues of media pluralism and political independence were put on the front scene again last year when talks about the New Media Bill started. The New Media Bill was a controversial media ownership law forbidding any non-European entity to own more than a 49% stake in a Polish radio or television broadcaster. 

“Opposition media is private,” says Artur, “and often funded by big corporations from the US or from Germany.” Notable cases are the German-Swiss Ringier Axel Springer and the American group the Discovery channel, owner of TVN 24

One of the key arguments put forward by the government in favour of the New Media Bill was to prevent Chinese or Russian media’s potential takeover of a Polish broadcaster. Following pressures from the United States and Europe (critics saying the law was aimed at silencing the US-owned channel TVN 24, very often critical of the government), President Duda later vetoed the law. 

But the controversy around the bill has highlighted one of the country’s long-term issues: the politicisation of the media and the risk of indirect government censorship. 

This phenomenon is called “media capture”:  governments and wealthy media owners combine efforts and try to control public opinion, in a collusion that becomes systemic. For example, the MPM indicator “commercial and owner influence over editorial content” has gone up 30% in one year (from 60% in 2020 to 90% in 2021.) 

In late 2021, state-owned PKN Orlen oil company purchased major publishing house Polska Press Group. The takeover of the biggest and most influential regional publisher in Poland by the state-owned company is a major step forward the ruling’s party declared aim to “repolonise the media.” […]  Though couched in language of pluralism and national sovereignty, these efforts have in reality been aimed at engineering the takeover of independent press by entities linked to the ruling party and strengthening the market influence of pro-government media, says Joanna Szymanska from ARTICLE 19 about the Polska Press case.

The purchase of the newspaper group, from its German owner Verlagsgruppe Passau Capital Group, was reported to be worth 120 million zloty (26.5 million euros). As a result of this transaction, Orlen owned 20 out of the country’s 24 daily regional newspapers in addition to nearly 120 regional weeklies and 500 online sites.

Advancing free media in Poland – what’s to be done

As a European Union’s member, Poland is required to respect the Union’ standards in terms of self-regulation and national law. In practice, however, facts seem to indicate the government wants to own and politicise the country’s media landscape. And because it is such a multi-facetted issue, no obvious solution is apparent. 

Risks could be mitigated by a more transparent system of media ownership, more transparent state advertising policies and “other forms of financial involvement of the state in news media operation”, states the MPM report, as well as preventing the “confluence of commercial and political influence.”

As a global recommendation for all countries, the report mentions the need to limit concentration of the media market and business’ influence over editorial content by “introducing effective criteria and practices for measuring and assessing markets’ and audiences’ concentration, including both traditional and online media actors”  and “setting principles for the national media-specific rules so as to address media market concentration, prohibiting positions of dominance in the media sector, and introducing a “media pluralism test” with which to evaluate media-pluralism related issues in cases where there are mergers and acquisitions in the media sector”.A close monitoring of the Polish situation by the European Union and regular denunciation of the attacks on independent journalism, as well as pressures from foreign European countries and the United States (as happened in the TVN 24’s case) are also, if not the solution, necessary steps towards improving the state of media pluralism in Poland, or at least stabilising the government’s influence on the media.