By Colette Davidson
Gazeta Wyborcza is no stranger to resistance. For the last 33 years, it has prided itself on holding power to account, becoming one of the few independent media to continue operating in Poland.
With its origins in the Solidarity movement, which helped upend communist rule, Gazeta Wyborcza has reported on everything from the dubious real estate transactions of Poland’s most powerful oil company CEOs to questioning ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s role in plans to build a luxury skyscraper in Warsaw.
But in doing so, the outlet has left itself open to assault by Poland’s right-wing, populist government. It is now challenging 100 lawsuits related to its content.
“It’s used as a chilling effect: ‘shut up, don’t write about it,’” says Piotr Stasiński, former Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Gazeta Wyborcza. “They want to drain our resources, intimidate and discourage us from writing about difficult things.”
The paper now has three lawyers who are dedicated 24/7 to the monumental task of addressing each lawsuit, which take up an enormous amount of time for both the legal team and the journalists involved. But Gazeta Wyborcza isn’t backing down.
“If we make a mistake in one of our articles, of course we’ll run a correction,” says Stasiński. “But most of these lawsuits are unjustified.”
Gazeta Wyborcza was first published on May 8, 1989 under the motto, “There’s no freedom without Solidarity.” Though it faced heavy censorship, the paper was essential in convincing the public to vote against totalitarian rule and became pioneers in overhauling the country’s communist leadership. It also became the first legal publication that was outside government control.
By the early 2000s, Gazeta Wyborcza became one of Poland’s best-selling newspapers. Alongside the TVN television network and Onet.pl, Gazeta Wyborcza remains highly influential with the public, regardless of its government detractors.
“We have 400 journalists working for us across the country,” says Stasiński, “and that’s why we’re treated by this government as a public enemy.”
Poland’s media landscape is heavily controlled by the ruling Law and Justice party, which recently pursued a “re-Polonisation” campaign to influence – and censor – privately-owned media. The state-owned oil company PKN Orlen has acquired 20 of the 24 regional newspapers, which count a total of over 17 million online readers.
In the current context, where public media is used as an instrument of government propaganda, independent media outlets have struggled to exist. Those who are critical of the government face lawsuits, threats, and attacks. Reporters Without Borders ranks Poland 66th out of 180 in its Press Freedom Index.
Gazeta Wyborcza is one of the few remaining independent media outlets that refuses to back down amidst this challenging political environment. They currently have a daily print circulation of 70,000 and 300,000 digital subscribers. They also founded the Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation, which organizes numerous activities aimed at broadening press freedom, both in Poland and abroad.
“We have our faults,” says Stasiński, “but luckily a large part of the population still trusts us.”