Interview by Jane Whyatt and Lutz Kinkel
The Polish government seeks to control the public discourse. Gazeta Wyborza is a flagship for independent quality journalism – and because of that smeared as “anti-state” and “pro-European”. ECPMF talked to former deputy editor-in-chief Piotr Stasiński about SLAPPS, physical threats, “re-polonisation” and what keeps him going.
The origins of Gazeta Wyborcza are rooted in the social movement headed by the union Solidarność that eventually led to the collaps of the military regime in Poland and the communist block. Piotr Stasiński, former deputy editor-in-chief, now Special Media Advisor, was one of the dissident journalists contributing to this movement. The first issue of the newly founded newspaper was published 8 May 1989.
Still the Gazeta Wyborcza is regarded as the most important independent daily newspaper in Poland, nevertheless it is under massive pressure. Beginning in July ECPMF supported the newspaper with a grant of 15.000 Euros to fight SLAPPs (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation). Currently the management faces more than 50 lawsuits.
The interview with Stasiński was conducted on the phone by ECPMF staffers Jane Whyatt and Lutz Kinkel.
ECPMF: Mr Stasiński, is the press still free in Poland?
Piotr Stasiński: The press is free, especially the printed press and the online services. There is no censorship. However, all liberal media face massive pressures. The media landscape is divided – half of it tries to sell quality journalism, the other half tips out propaganda.
Andrzej Duda, candidate of the governing PiS party, recently won the presidential elections. There were accusations, that public TV favoured Duda in a very one-sided way. What role does Polish public radio and TV play?
A very important role. Public television is watched all over Poland, they have the widest geographical coverage and the largest audience. Mostly it is watched in the so-called provinces, in rural areas and small towns.
Nevertheless, TVP is not public anymore, it is now called ‘national’. In fact, it is government television. The audience is exposed to scandalous, horrible propaganda, including all kinds of invectives and accusations against the political opposition and democratic minded media like Gazeta Wyborcza or TVN, which belongs to the American Discovery Channel.
Private TV channels are said to have favoured Duda’s opponent Rafał Trzaskowski in a one-sided way. Is that true – and another sign of polarization?
Poland is completely polarised but there is no symmetry between, for instance, state-controlled TVP and private, independent TVN. There’s a large difference between propaganda and the far more impartial journalism of TVN. For example, all of Duda’s meetings during the presidential election campaign were transmitted by TVN, at least in shorter versions. But his rival’s meetings were not shown on TVP.
During the campaign Duda attacked the Poland correspondent of the German daily “Die Welt” personally. What’s the strategy behind this?
This is directed at people who have old anti-German feelings from the time of World War II. The sentiments are vague and and get lower year by year. A lot of people travel to Germany, hundreds of thousands of Poles work there, a campaign like this doesn’t impress them. However, using xenophobic language, especially against Germans, works with some parts of the rural population. This is how the government campaigns: inciting fear and then managing fear. They are managing bad emotions.
Duda also attacked the publishers of Ringier-Springer for interfering in the elections. Do we face a new debate on „re-polonising the media“ in your country?
Yes. The government has the law prepared and there is a way to make it look plausible. It’s very easy to create an anti-concentration law using the argument that Germany, France and other EU-countries also regulate their media markets. For instance, the government might forbid the owner of a nationwide newspaper to additionally operate nationwide websites. If someone ownes a nationwide TV they might not be eligble to also have newspapers, and so on and so forth. This kind of law is very easy to manipulate. It depends on how you define the market. If they want to punish a foreign investor who has more than one media outlet – here we go.
Could another method of “re-polonisation” be to avoid passing a law and simply pressure owners into selling their media outlets?
Exactly. For instance, the German publisher Passauer Neue Presse has the majority of local and regional nespapers. These are traditional titles from 50 years ago and people are accustomed to them. “This is our paper“, they think. These newspapers are very important to the electoral base of the PiS party. There were rumours that Passauer Neue Presse – in Poland they call themselves Polska Press – is going to be bought for a huge sum of money before the local elections. The sum was provided by state owned enterprises: oil companies, the largest insurance, the state-owned bank PKO PB. Polska Press probably refused to sell. But it is clear that this offer may be repeated. Look at what happened in Hungary.
Are the policies in Hungary a role model for the current government in Poland?
Very much so. Already in 2016 PiS-party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski stated in public that he wanted “Budapest in Warsaw”. We have a lot of contacts with Hungarian journalists who sympathize with us. The situation over there is horrible.
What does the political pressure in Poland do to your newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza?
We are treated as a kind of public enemy here. PiS-politicians and their followers name us “traitors”, they claim we are “anti-state”, “anti-government”, “pro European”, “pro German”, they even call us “pro Russian” or simply “Jews”. Outlets from the PiS media sphere frequently label us “Polish language newspaper”. This is to insinuate we are not Polish, but only use the Polish language to lie to our audience. This kind of humiliating language is our everyday experience. One of the fascists in the Polish Parliament, Grzegorz Braun, publicly said, we should be shot dead.
As you know, language prepares action, that’s why there are also physical assaults. For instance, our photographers were attacked and accused by the police, when they wanted to cover a demonstration in front of the house that belongs to Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
Gazeta Wyborcza newsroom. Picture @Gazeta Wyborcza
ECPMF supports Gazeta Wyborcza with a grant to fight so called SLAPP: Strategic Litigation against Public Participation. Could you please explain the type litigations and the intensions behind them?
When we criticise the government for its conflicts with the European Union or the Venice Commission; when we criticise them for violating the constitution and suppressing the opposition; when we criticise the restriction of gatherings and the reduced possibilities to demonstrate: we feel this is part of our obligation to the public. We have to do journalism, otherwise we are unnecessary.
However, the ruling party regards our work as “anti-Polish” and claims we would destroy the raison d’etat of our country.
Subsequently, the vast majority of lawsuits concern articles or videos on the website, that are critical of the government, government agencies or state-owned companies. Usually, the plaintiff demands a correction – and, of course, an apology, preferrably in national TV, and also high ‘damages’, financial compensation. But no, we won’t aplogize. Of course we are not perfect. There are some mistakes, usually rather small ones. If we see them, we correct them. But SLAPPs are not about that. In fact, they want to burry us under and avalanche of lawsuits. Currently, we have more than 50 litigations going on! I think there are five – from national television, PiS paty, the Ministry of Justice, state owned companies and the Polish copper conglomerate – because we criticised the face masks that were brought to Poland in the famous Antonov transport plane. And all of these facemasks proved to be worthless, their certificates were falsified, it was pure propaganda bullshit. However, the prime minister ordered state owned companies to buy them. This is absolutey crazy, this is like Kasachstan! And they sue us. They want a correction. Outrageous. Of course, we will defend the author.
More than 50 lawsuits at the same time: how do you handle that?
This is pure harassment. We should do our journalistic work. But I have to spend a lot of time talking with our lawyer, which is even more complicated now, because we work remotely, and we have to put signatures on the elaborate responses to the prosecutors office or plaintiffs. I have to go to the court and be a witness. We invest a lot of time for nothing. Our lawyer, who is one of the best in Poland, works day and night. This is harassment. Just harassment.
Can you still rely on the Polish judiciary?
We won the famous lawsuit against PiS party where we were indicted because a journalist used in his commentary the word “mafia state”. Eventually we won this in the Supreme Court because they were appealing and appealing. But this might be an exception. More and more courts, especially on the lower level, are controlled by the Ministry of Justice. And the Ministry is repeatedly sueing us. Currently we have around six lawsuits with them. Three or four of them concern one article, that is also a commentary. Not a factual article. And we made a mistake in this. It deals with the so called paedophile register, which is published by the Ministry of Justice. We were wrong in saying it was intentionally arranged in a way that avoids registering peadophile priests. We corrected this in the newspaper and online right the day after publication. But still they filed a lawsuit against us. I think most of the lawsuits come from them.
Will the EU’s Article 7 procedure against Poland initiate a change for the better?
Not really. I think, we have some insights from Brussels. The European Commission will try to find a way to co-operate with this government. Probably, they don’t have enough power and instruments to change the situation. The UE parliament is very different, it is very critical of what happens in Poland. In the Commission, there seems not enough movement, as I observe it. Especially, after the presidential election, when half of the population voted for Andrzej Duda, a PiS candidate. Again, Brussels has to deal with a president that calls the EU an “imaginary community”, and says that LGBT+ people are not human but an ‘ideology’.
How does the newspaper survive in such an environment? Can you participate in the advertisement market at least?
We don’t get any ads from any state affiliated entity. Even not the ads announcing bids for European funds. They were all withdrawn, when PiS came to power. The same happened to Newsweek Polska, which belongs to Ringier-Springer. This is a hard hit on revenues, of course. Instead, the ads go to PiS friendly media outlets. Some of them are very small, economically it makes no sense to publish any ad there, but they do it. It is a hidden subvention, no: a donation for being PiS friendly.
What’s more is the subscriptions. Gazeta Wyborcza was the largest and most important newspaper in Poland, every authority or state affiliated agency had a subscription of the print version and later of the online service. But not now. All subscriptions were cancelled.
On the other hand, you have an enormous number of digital subscripitions from private users.
Before the rise of the internet we sold even 500.000 newspapers a day on average. Now it is much, much less, in the average less than 100.000. But we are growing in paid digital subscriptions. Our strategy – we learned a lot from the New York Times – is quite successful, we have more than 240.000 paid subscribtions. Unfortunately, these subscribtions are comparetivly cheap and they do not bring us enough revenue to maintain our journalists. Still the printed newspaper makes more revenue than the digital subscriptions.
Luckily, we are owned by Agora, a public company. One of the funds of George Soros holds around 11 percent of our shares at the stock-market, which is also helpful. It protects us against a hostile takeover. The owners cannot be intimidated easily.
Since the PiS took over the government in 2015 Poland fell in the Reporters Without Borders Index from position 18 to 62. Do you see any chance to stop this development?
I think it will get worse, because the government publicly threatens the quality press even more now. Zbigniew Ziobro, Minister of Justice, says it is time to regulate the media, to make them behave orderly. Another vice-minister, in charge of the state-owned companies, says it is time for re-polonisation and deconcentration. There will be all kinds of pressures, not only the ones I mentioned before. The third largest TV station is called Polsat and belongs to one of the richest Polish businessmen. He owns many enterprises, for instance energy companies, whose profit depends on state regulation. Recently he made changes in the staff of the news-service in favor of journalists who seem to be more PiS leaning, or at least sympathetic with the PiS authorities.
On the other side, we see that already a few PiS parlamentarians are named CEO’s of private companies. Because of COVID-19 and the economic crisis these companies need financial government aid – as in other countries. This is how they pave the way to subsidies: making PiS parlamentarians their managers.
How would you describe your journalistic approach of the Gazeta Wyborzca?
We are an important institution of democracy. I wouldn’t regard myself being a part of the ‘fourth estate’. No. This metaphor is too much. But we are part of democracy. When the Nixon administration sued the New York Times and the Washington Post to prohibit the publication of the Pentagon Papers scandal, a justice of the US Supreme Court said, quoting the constitution of the United States: the press is to serve the governed, not the governors. This is the motto I believe very much in. It is existential for us.