There is a Soviet joke about a man who was scattering leaflets in Red Square in Moscow. Police rushed and handcuffed him. A policeman took a bunch of leaflets, but they were… blank sheets. He said: ‘Hey, you fool, nothing is written here, what are you doing it for?’. The man answered: ‘Why write anything? Everybody knows everything’.
Well, leaflets must not be blank. And this is what journalism is about, I believe.
Gazeta Wyborcza is deeply honoured by WAN-IFRA and the World Editors Forum’s recognition and appreciation. I’m speaking with great satisfaction on behalf of our entire team and Adam Michnik, our Editor-in-Chief since 1989.
In 1989, as communist dictatorships in Central and Eastern Europe started falling, Gazeta Wyborcza was founded: the first and only independent daily newspaper published freely ‘between the Elbe River and Vladivostock’. Having its roots in the anti-communist opposition and Solidarity movement, Gazeta Wyborcza became a crucial institution of Polish democracy. And it remains the more so today, since the current authoritarian government of the Law and Justice (PiS) party has either trampled or captured nearly all institutions which safeguard democracy and the rule of law: independent judiciary, equality under law for all, women’s and minorities’ rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, decent education, and even honest elections.
Nowadays, with new authoritarianisms on the rise, when freedom of expression is subject to suppression and ridicule, free media in our region, in Hungary, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland (Wyborcza included) are facing hardships comparable to the communist era.
An uphill battle, but not futile
Let’s evoke that Soviet joke again. Does everybody know everything? Really?
No, today it’s not true. Everybody doesn’t know everything. Worse, many do not want to know. It’s ‘the news avoidance’. The reason is the massive authoritarian propaganda, but also many people simply wish to remain in their information bubbles, and ‘listen to songs they already know’. They avoid or ignore the cognitive dissonance. To feel comfortable, secure, and calm. Being fooled is somehow soothing. In fact, they do not allow themselves to be citizens responsible for their country and, indeed, for their future.
Gazeta Wyborcza’s mission is to oppose this devastating phenomenon – as difficult as it may be. We work to inform citizens, and we work for informed citizens who want to make sensible judgments and to elect officials wisely. For the people who want us to keep those in power in check, to disclose abuses of power, scandals, and corruption. For the people who want to be ruled by the law, and not by sheer coercion.
Even if it’s an uphill battle, we are convinced that it is not futile. What Gazeta Wyborcza and other free media in Poland have been fighting against are: the censorship by other means and the cancelling of public opinion.
Since 2015, when the Law and Justice (PiS) party took power, Polish independent media have carried on the uneven struggle against oppression by the authorities. In late 2015, PiS wasted no time in capturing all public service broadcasting media. State-controlled TVP & Polish Radio then fired or forced all independent reporters and editors to resign, replacing them with loyalists not to be called journalists. Since then, TVP & Polish Radio have been serving as tools of primitive regime propaganda: blatant lies and hatred against political opponents and independent media; questioning women’s rights, condemning LGBTQ people, attacking humane and lawful attitudes towards immigrants, like those recently pushed back on the Polish-Belarus border.
The PiS propaganda machine is also setting their constituents against the European Union, and disgracing Germany, in particular. Thus, PiS seems to be preparing an eventual Polexit.
Although regime-serving broadcast media systematically lose audiences, they still have enormous scope in terms of viewership; in some regions, people watch TVP only, and regularly vote for PiS.
Moreover, PiS dignitaries control, politically and financially, many media outlets. Radio Maryja, run by infamous priest Tadeusz Rydzyk, supports PiS in campaigns against women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, independent judges, and even propagates antisemitism. Some other catholic outlets are alike. On the Internet, neofascist groups are very active and zealous; they have several MPs and receive hefty financial subsidies from government agencies, the Ministry of Culture in particular.
All this amounts to a 24/7 propaganda army – nationalistic, right-wing populist, and staunchly catholic; attacking any democratic institution that has yet been left independent, like the office of ombudsman or ‘disloyal’ local governments. All those media shamelessly and constantly glorify PiS rule.
The regime treats free media as a ‘public enemy’
PiS and its allies have tried to silence, ‘make behave’, or subordinate free, private media. Official agencies and state-controlled companies have withdrawn most ads and announcements from free media; even public tender notices regarding EU funding, and pandemic communication.
Since free media publish real news and critical opinion, and their investigative reporters reveal scandals, and fraud, they have become targets of permanent legal bullying, insult and innuendo by state media and ruling politicians. PiS-controlled entities have brought against us an avalanche of lawsuits, many of them SLAPP’s. The report we published in 2021 showed some 180 such lawsuits since 2015: more than 70 against Gazeta Wyborcza alone. And these numbers are growing: today there are already around 100 lawsuits that we’ve had to fight. Fending-off those attacks consumes enormous cost and time of our lawyers and journalists.
Notorious was an attempt to refuse a broadcasting license for information channel TVN24, part of the TVN station owned by Discovery, by using a bill forced through parliament. Although eventually vetoed by the president, the assault has not ended because the regime-controlled regulator still demands that parliament pass a law to prohibit most foreign investment in Polish media, under the guise of ‘de-concentration’.
PiS has also found another way: taking ownership. In the beginning of 2021, the biggest network of regional and local media, Polska Press, was bought by Orlen, a state-controlled oil company (the largest in our part of Europe); the seller was the German Verlagsgruppe Passau. ‘Orlen Press’ took over 20 regional dailies, 120 weeklies and 500 Internet portals with more than 17 million profiled users. The whole management of Polska Press, editors, journalists, and other ‘disobedient’ employees were replaced by regime loyalists. Orlen also bought a bankrupt press distribution firm, Ruch, the largest in Poland. Thus, the regime obtained a powerful instrument to win future elections, particularly regional and local.
All this leads to censorship by other means (official censorship being prohibited by the Polish Constitution).
And how about the cancelling of public opinion?
Government agencies, and other PiS-controlled institutions permanently break the access to public information law by not answering questions regarding public issues posed by free media. Any exposure of a scandal, an affair, or corruption is stubbornly ignored by PiS public officials.
Polish prime minister, the former CEO of a foreign-owned bank, shamelessly hides his fortune using complicated financial dealings, despite the fact that his party once promised to disclose assets possessed not only by public figures but also by their spouses and families.
A recent lack of any proper government reaction to the ecological catastrophe on the Oder River has been entangled in official dis-information, coarse lies, conflicting half-truths, and false accusations (‘it’s Germans who poisoned the Oder’). Obviously, it has been met with near-silence in the regime-serving media.
The everyday experience of independent journalists is chasing officials in parliament corridors, staircases, or vestibules of public buildings, while the latter hardly turn their heads. And if they say anything it is: ‘ask a spokesperson; it’s not appropriate to ask at the moment; go to an official briefing’. But official briefings are propaganda events, drowned in fake news, with questions interrupted, answers avoided, and insults thrown at reporters. These are not isolated incidents, but regular practice; humiliating for reporters who seek true facts and try to present ‘the other side’s position’.
So, because public opinion is systematically ignored, public opinion ceases to exist altogether. Scandals and abuses by officials have no consequences whatsoever; there is no accountability. Such a resignation as that of Boris Johnson for breaking Covid rules and lying about it, is impossible under the PiS regime in Poland.
Gazeta Wyborcza is needed, and has needs
In recent years, Gazeta Wyborcza has carried out a highly successful digital transformation. Today, Wyborcza ranks 10th among European newspapers, in terms of the number of digital subscriptions; with more than 290 thousand of them purchased. And it ranks 5th in the EU; omitting British newspapers because of Brexit.
Our achievement is spectacular because in Poland people usually think that news is free, and that they’ve already paid for the access to the Internet. Nonetheless, a considerable group of Polish citizens trust us and need us.
Currently, with the sharply rising price of newsprint – twofold! – we, as all other newspapers, face even more dire straits than before; losses of revenue, in particular. Therefore, we need more assistance and investment by the publishing company instead of constant pressure on cost-cutting and austerity, dictated by faulty and narrow-minded corporate logic. Our mission and our respected brand need to be preserved and expanded, not disregarded, or reduced. The mission we are committed to is especially important now, in our troubled country, and in the increasingly troubled world – with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, worldwide assaults on democracy, and toxic political polarization everywhere.
The Golden Pen of Freedom award, which we were granted and humbly accept today, helps. Helps us carry on, helps us to persevere.