„Ja, zwykły, szary człowiek, taki jak wy, wzywam was wszystkich – nie czekajcie dłużej. Trzeba zmienić tę władzę jak najszybciej, zanim doszczętnie zniszczy nasz kraj; zanim całkowicie pozbawi nas wolności”. – Piotr Szczęsny, "szary człowiek" (19.10.2017)
On the 10th of February, the largest independent broadcasters and radio stations suspended news coverage for 24 hours, airing symbolic blacked-out screens in a concerted protest against a new media tax introduced by the United Right. The levy was denounced as an attack on independent journalism: while the public media is going to be financed, the private media is likely to give employees their marching orders and cut on research activities or journalistic operations in order to be solvent.
Under the act of the Finance Ministry, any revenue from advertising – whether it be online or conventional – would be subject to a tax with a rate ranging from 2 to 15%. The exact tax value depends on the size of the revenue, the type of media in which the ad was published, and the product advertised. In reality, the rates are to be arbitrary: some media companies would pay higher amounts than others. In this manner, although advertising tax is to be paid by all publishers, the national media outlets might expect favorable treatment from the Polish authorities.
The tax was forced through on the pretense of COVID-19. As Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki emphasized, “Given the long-term consequences of the spread of the SARS CoV-2, the legislators acknowledge the need to introduce emergency solutions in order to minimize the impact of the pandemic”. In practice, the authorities – faced with growing discontent – have been bandying new excuses around, one of them being that the levy would allow the government to collect money from the “digital giants”, including Facebook and Google. In reality, the revenue from the big corporations would amount to around 50–100 million PLN, whilst the local media outlets are predicted to generate approximately 800 million PLN per year. All the while, the public sector receives twice as much from the taxpayers, not to mention the expected 35% of the media tax revenue that would be allocated to the Fund for Supporting Culture and National Heritage in the Media Area. The rest is set aside for the National Health Fund, giving the government the right to call the tax a “solidarity fee”.
The Law and Justice Party have long been wending its way towards tightening its control over broadcasters and publishers by using the nationalized media companies to “re-polonize” the entire media sector. Recent years have seen government-controlled outlets taking a heavy toll on private companies. The information about the government-run company, PKN Orlen SA, buying 20 out of 24 Polish regional newspapers owned by German publisher Verlagsgruppe Passau, made big waves within the Polish society afraid of following in the footsteps of Hungary.
Relatively to Budapest, the government in Warsaw seems not to lounge around. When the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was constructing the machine of reliable media outlets, the Law and Justice Party were trying their best to shun the unchecked media agencies; yet, Warsaw is still a far cry from the Hungarian model of 'media freedom.'
Ahead of the protest, in an open letter to the government, the private sector of Polish media publicly condemned the plan of taxing media, calling it a freedom constraint. “It is simple extortion”, states the official letter that includes speculation that the “advertising contributions” will significantly weaken some media agencies, liquidating the least fortunate ones.
In the wake of the public outcry, the government spokesman, Piotr Muller, officially announced that a new media project is in the making. Supposedly, the new draft addresses concerns raised by the existing proposal, all the while remaining progressive so that it does not hit local media, only international giants. Some political analysts suggest that alterations may include an increase in the tax imposed on big-scale digital platforms. Yet, the collective resistance on the side of opposition (unhampered by minor concessions of the United Right) is looming over Poland.
However, the pro-PiS companies have not yet taken over the Polish media landscape. On the contrary: not many European states have such media pluralism to their credit. As of the national daily newspapers, those anti-PiS prevail. One of the best-selling newspapers, the tabloid Fakt, operates within the liberal and pro-European framework, followed by Super Express and Gazeta Wyborcza, a progressive newspaper outrightly hostile to PiS, as well as Rzeczpospolita that is becoming increasingly liberal since 2011. Instead Gazeta Polska Codziennie, for example, remained faithful to the pro-PiS narrative, which was predictable since the paper is being sponsored by the government. The weeklies demographic is however more equilibrated. On the left side of the spectrum, a weekly Polityka has the lead, followed by the liberal-progressive Newsweek Polska and Tygodnik Powszechny, and a progressive Catholic weekly (hostile to PiS). The right side is, in turn, occupied by the conservative Catholic weekly Gość Niedzielny, then Sieci, which is openly pro-PiS, and Do Rzeczy, a liberal-conservative weekly both praising and criticizing PiS from its right flank.
Although the new media developments throughout Europe constitute a blow to the dominant values of the EU community as a whole, the threat to independent media in Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia, was debated by the EU lawmakers only one month after the black-out. Compiled report christened Poland as “one of the countries ruled by governments with authoritarian tendencies” that use pandemic as an excuse to weaken the democratic standard. Even though the EU officials guarantee the situation is continually monitored, the assurance is not supported with actions.
Today, media pluralism in an indispensable condition of a healthy democratic state, in which unrestricted flow of information is to be a requisite for a public debate underlying the concept of the free society. Yet, the actions of the European Union so far cast doubt on its determination to defend the democratic practices in countries like Poland and Hungary.
p.s. On April 8, 2021, District Court of Warsaw suspended the transfer of purchase of the local media by Orlen. Office of Competition and Consumer Protection (UOKiK), the state institution which had agreed for the purchase, says they are not going to recognize the Court’s ruling…