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Underneath cowl of Covid, Poland is stifling free media – and all Europe needs to be fearful | Timothy Garton Ash

Democracy dies in darkness. One of many European Union’s most fragile democracies, Poland, now faces the spectre of the evening that falls when public service media have been became propaganda organs for a ruling social gathering whereas non-public, unbiased media are suffocated. Ultimately, mild is forged no extra on the failings and abuses of these in energy, as a result of there are not any extra torches to shine that mild. Hungary – which is not a democracy – has virtually reached that twilight second, with the extinction of its final main unbiased radio station.

Poland remains to be a good distance from nightfall, however the menace is actual. Within the World Press Freedom index, the nation has sunk from 18th in 2015, forward of Britain and France, to 62nd final 12 months. (Hungary is down at 89th.)

If you happen to watched solely Polish state tv information during the last fortnight, you’ll do not know that Poland is at the moment among the many international locations doing the worst throughout the pandemic. In response to Bloomberg’s Covid resilience rating, Poland has fallen to fiftieth place among the many world’s 53 largest economies, with solely Brazil, the Czech Republic and Mexico performing worse. However swap on the official information and, after temporary point out of the most recent Covid figures, there are lengthy objects about how the federal government is dashing up the vaccination marketing campaign, with the assistance of the great military, and the way horrible the opposition’s file was on public well being when it was in energy. In different “information”, you find out how good Poland’s relations are with the US, particularly in defence; how a lot cash the federal government is pumping into the railways and native authorities; how Christians are being persecuted everywhere in the world; and the way a grave was not too long ago uncovered exhibiting extra victims of wartime German occupation. The propaganda is extra excessive but additionally extra skilful than over the last decade of communist rule.

Solely if you flip to the unbiased TVN24 information do you see footage of lengthy queues of ambulances ready exterior hospitals, as a result of there are not any extra intensive care beds, and listen to medical doctors explaining how horrible the general public well being state of affairs actually is. TVN24 isn’t BBC-impartial, however it does critical journalism and provides you the opposite facet of the story. The identical “two realities” expertise will be had switching from state to personal radio, or from government-supporting papers to unbiased and opposition ones.

Such a hyper-polarised public sphere is already unhealthy sufficient, as we see within the US, however now the ruling Legislation and Justice social gathering has launched a scientific assault on unbiased media. The strategies are straight out of Viktor Orbán’s playbook in Hungary. Public sector promoting and subscriptions are withdrawn from unbiased media. All types of regulatory chicanery is used towards them. Public cash is pumped into state tv and radio. A “pandemic tax” is proposed on media promoting income. A projected legislation on the “repolonisation” of media would goal international house owners of the most important unbiased retailers. A state-owned petrol firm, PKN Orlen, whose boss is a Legislation and Justice social gathering crony, buys each a significant press distributor, Ruch, and the most important community of regional newspapers, Polska Press. Probably the most essential papers are bombarded with lawsuits. Gazeta Wyborcza counts greater than 60 lawsuits, together with one from the justice minister in individual. And, as European authorized authorities have repeatedly decided, the independence of Polish courts has been thus far eroded which you can not depend on a good trial.

That is that outdated Hungarian speciality, salami techniques: eliminating freedom slice by slice.

Polish media and civil society are resisting strongly, however they want slightly assist from their buddies. The US issues enormously right here. The Legislation and Justice authorities and president, Andrzej Duda, make a lot of their particular relationship with Washington. However they had been robust supporters of Donald Trump, who in return gave Duda electoral help final summer time. The administration of Joe Biden owes them no favours, and it has an agenda that claims to be robust on democracy and human rights. In addition to defending TVN, which is owned by the US firm Discovery, Washington ought to now spotlight unbiased media because the frontline of defending democracy in Poland.

Britain counts for lower than it as soon as did in Warsaw due to Brexit however, together with different liberal democracies similar to Canada and Australia, it might probably assist flip the highlight on this difficulty. Germany is of the primary significance, and a German-Swiss group, Ringier Axel Springer, owns some of the necessary Polish on-line platforms,, the tabloid Fakt and a number one weekly, Newsweek Polska. The Polish authorities tries to silence Berlin by consistently mentioning the second world conflict, however the correct lesson from that historical past isn’t that Germany have to be significantly reticent on these points. It’s exactly due to that horrible previous that Germany needs to be the primary to talk up for freedom and human rights.

Most necessary, and most problematic, is the EU. One of the miserable discoveries of the previous few years is that the EU, which spends a lot time speaking about democracy, is pathetically ineffective with regards to defending democracy inside its personal member states. Now it will hand out many extra billions of euros to these states, each from the EU-wide post-Covid restoration fund and from the bloc’s new seven-year finances. Big sums will go on to the populist nationalist governments in Warsaw and Budapest, with solely minimal situations connected. Most of these nice investments trumpeted on Polish state tv information are finished with the assistance of EU cash. On the very least, the EU ought to make it crystal clear that, underneath single market guidelines, international media house owners could by no means be discriminated towards. It ought to distribute a big chunk of the brand new cash straight by means of native authorities – as urged by the mayors of Warsaw and Budapest. And it ought to create a considerable EU fund for the defence of media freedom throughout the continent.

Final week, the management of Poland’s Legislation and Justice social gathering started talks with Orbán and Matteo Salvini of Italy about forming a new populist nationalist grouping within the EU. It’s not simply democracy in Poland that’s at stake right here; it’s democracy in Europe as an entire.

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