Poland Censors Itself

The Polish government attacks freedom of speech and alienates its allies

There was a time, in the not so distant past, when Poland showed the world the importance of freedom of speech.  Thirty-five years after a horrible war, a bit more than three decades into communist rule, Polish workers took a stand that changed the entire international discussion of human rights.  In August 1980, workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk went on strike.  Workers throughout the country were striking against an increase in food prices.  At the shipyard, the strike began in solidarity with Anna Walentynowycz, who was a few months away from retirement.  Exactly forty-one years ago, on 17 August 1980, the shipyard workers issued twenty-one demands to the communist government.  Crucially, this list went beyond economic issues to include human rights.  The first and second demands were the rights to form independent trade unions and the right to strike.  In third place was the right to freedom of speech.

Amazingly, Polish communist government was forced to accept all of the strikers' demands.  A free trade union, Solidarity, was established, and quickly had millions of members.  For a very special period, beginning in September 1980, a new legion of journalists was allowed to publish in legal and independent newspapers.  Suddenly there was an alternative to government propaganda, and a new possibility for the discussion of what had been taboo issues.  This period of legal freedom of speech came to a close in December 1981, when martial law was declared, Solidarity was banned, and most of its leading activists placed in internment camps.  Nevertheless, some of the best journalists of the period were able to publish an important underground newspaper, Tygodnik Mazowsze.  These resourceful reporters, most of them women, were able to chronicle the country under martial law. 

The experience of free speech and courageous journalism was important preparation for the end of communism when it came in 1989.  More than other countries in the eastern bloc, Poland was able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms.  Its partially free elections, the first in the region, were the impulse for the creation of a newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza.  When candidates from Solidarity won those elections, Poles were able to follow the events on the basis of a free and quite mature press.

A bit more than three decades into post-communism, all of this now seems like distant history.  A visitor to Poland this August finds the freedom of speech in a state of rapid decline.  Gazeta Wyborcza still exists, but it is embattled and has cut back on local and regional news.  Television is what matters most, and state television now sadly recalls its communist antecedent.  State television channels lost their autonomy five years ago.  Under the present government, dominated by the Law and Justice Party (PiS), they are propaganda senders.  Those who wish to see actual reporting watch the channel TVN24, part of TVN, a private network owned by an American company, Discovery, Inc., through a subsidiary in the Netherlands. 

It is hard to overstate how important TVN24 is to the maintenance of a sense of political reality in Poland.  Most Poles get their news from television, and TVN24 provides millions of people with a review of news and opinion that is not adapted to the daily demands of the government.  TVN24 does local, national, and international reporting, and has a variety of opinion on its discussion programs.  It raises subjects such as global warming that government channels do not seem eager to cover.   It is by no means an opposition medium; it is simply a news network that does not say what the government wishes it to say.  As I drafted this post, I checked the websites of state television and TVN24 to get a quick sample: the first devoted the entire front page to a Christian music competition, whereas the second had a first headline about an earthquake in Haiti and a second about Israel withdrawing  its chargé d'affaires from Poland.  That juxtaposition will do as well as any comparison.

On 11 August, the Polish government pushed a law through the lower house of parliament (the Sejm) that is designed to place TVN under government control.  The Polish government is all too obviously following the Russian and Hungarian examples, according to which rival media are banned, humbled, or domesticated until nothing remains in the mainstream but a single pro-government voice.  Although the government provides the expected excuses across the state media it controls, the attempt to reduce the freedom of expression is unmistakable.  The government lost one of its coalition partners, whose leader pointed out the obvious: "this law clearly violates the principle of media freedom."  The TVN law must now be approved by the upper house of parliament and signed by the president to come into force.

What is worse than the substance of the law, if anything could be worse, is its apparent political purpose.  Like Orbán in Hungary and Putin in Russia, the present Polish government seems to be afraid of elections.  Total control of the televisual media space is one way to seek to remain in power indefinitely: by making elections unfair by denying opponents access to media, by broadcasting falsehoods about the results of the vote, by minimizing protests and demonizing protestors, and so on. 

The possibility of irregular elections was foreshadowed by the manner in which the law got through the lower house of parliament.  The motion to discuss the proposed legislation actually failed to pass.  Then the speaker of the Sejm found a pretext to hold the vote again.  To put it mildly, this is not how parliamentary voting is supposed to work.  This precedent of the do-over now looms over the next elections.  Should Law and Justice and allies not win enough votes to form a majority, will they decide that what they need to do is count the votes again, hold the election again, or something similar?  Although in western newspapers the main story has been freedom of speech, in Poland itself the greatest shock was generated by the procedural issue in parliament.  The phrase "coup d'état" was used in non-governmental media with considerable regularity.

For years Poland has been in conflict with the European Union as a result of the government's attempts to suborn the courts (among other things, it has ignored court rulings about the media).  The TVN law makes things worse.  Now there is strife with its most important ally, the United States.  Because TVN is owed by Americans, the attempt to take it over is opposed by American legislators with various motives: some who oppose the intimidation and nationalization of American companies, others who wish to defend the freedom of speech, and some who believe, correctly, that this move is a major step towards open authoritarianism in Poland. 

The intervention of American legislators has not been well received.  Indeed, it is striking how flippant and unpleasant communications between Warsaw and Washington have become.  Nostalgia for Trump is thick in the air; Poland's government never seemed to grasp his indifference to everything beyond himself, to notice his lickspittle attitude to Putin, nor take cognizance of his desire to withdraw from NATO.  On 6 January, as Trump supporters invaded the Capitol on the basis of his big lie, Polish state television published a tweet trivializing the event.  Amidst the controversy about TVN, the Polish government tried to block the appointment of a new U.S. ambassador to Poland, on the ground that the person in question is a Polish citizen, which he is not.  Then a former Polish foreign minister referred to the diplomat who runs the US embassy until the ambassador arrives, the chargé d'affaires, as a "whack job" (oszołom) and proposed that he be expelled from the country.  

Where is this all coming from?  It would seem that, in all of Polish history, the country never had it so good as it does now.  The simple existence of a sovereign Poland for three decades has no precedent since the end of the eighteenth century.  Poland has never had access to such large markets and as it has with the EU, not to mention very substantial financial aid it receives from its partners.  Poland has never had military allies of the sort it has in NATO.  What is more, both the EU and NATO are extremely popular among the Polish population.  There would seem to be no other reason to pass the TVN law, and no other reason to risk the western connection, than to ensure that the people who currently run Poland stay in power indefinitely.  That would seem to be a very bad reason.  It sacrifices democracy, basic rights, and Poland's position in the world. 

Perhaps the strangest thing about all this is the geopolitical fog in which the current government seems to operate.  One the one hand, Poland's foreign policy aims to make its allies aware of the dangers of Putin's Russia.  Warsaw opposed the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, which rewards Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, and which gives the Russian invader one more source of influence upon Ukraine.  On this issue Poland was right and Germany (and now the United States) are wrong.  Poland has also done more than any other country (except Lithuania) to support the democratic opposition in Belarus. 

Yet for its own interests and future sovereignty, Poland's regional foreign policy counts for less than its policy towards Europe and the United States.  Trying to oppose Russia without allies amounts to succumbing to Russia.  In any event, foreign policy counts for much less than domestic practice.  Moscow does not need Warsaw to say that it is pro-Russian or run a pro-Russian foreign policy.  It simply needs Warsaw to pursue domestic policies that make a Russian orientation the only option in the long run.  Although Poland's rulers will deny it in public and perhaps to themselves, that is what they are doing. 

I can't help but recall the dictum of the Polish literary scholar Maria Janion: a country that cannot exist without suffering must in the end hurt itself.