In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.
Justice Hugo Black (Pentagon Papers ruling, US Supreme Court, 1971)
There is a Soviet joke about a man who was scattering leaflets in the 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. This is what journalism is all about, I believe.
Gazeta Wyborcza is deeply honoured by the WAN-IFRA’s/World Editors Forum’s recognition and appreciation. I’m speaking on behalf of our entire team and Adam Michnik, our Editor-in-Chief since 1989. (Adam Michnik doesn’t need, I hope, a detailed presentation; however, I’m attaching his CV and honours and awards).
In 1989, while communist dictatorships in Central and Eastern Europe started falling, which was the very year of Gazeta Wyborcza’s founding, it was 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 afterwards a crucial institution of Polish democracy. And it remains the more so, since the current authoritarian government of the Law and Justice (PiS) party either trampled, destroyed, 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, anti-discrimination rules, decent education, affordable and good healthcare, and even honest elections.
Nowadays, while new authoritarianisms are 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.
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 know nothing, because they do not want to know. It’s called ‘the news avoidance’. The reason is the massive and effective authoritarian propaganda, but it’s only a part of the problem. Also, many people wish to remain in their information bubbles, and ‘listen to songs they already know’. They avoid or reduce a cognitive dissonance. In order 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, in fact, for their future.
Gazeta Wyborcza mission is to oppose this widespread and devastating phenomenon – as difficult as it may be. We work to inform citizens, and we work for informed cititizens. For the people who, in order to make sensible judgments and to elect officials wisely. For 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 the 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, the story of Polish media is one of the uneven struggle against the oppression by authorities. In the late 2015, PiS wasted no time to capture all public service broadcasting media. State-controlled TVP & Polish Radio then fired or forced to resign all independent reporters and editors, 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 attitude towards immigrants, like those recently pushed back on the Polish-Belarus border.
Also, the PiS propaganda machine is setting their constituents against the European Union, and disgracing Germany, in particular. Thus, PiS seems to prepare an eventual Polexit.
Although regime-serving broadcasting media lose audiences systematically, they still have enormous scope in terms of viewership; in some regions, people watch TVP only, and regularly vote for PiS.
Besides captured public broadcasters, PiS dignitaries control, politically and financially, many media outlets. Also, Radio Maryja, run by infamous priest Tadeusz Rydzyk, supports PiS in campaigns against women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, nidependent judges, and promotes even racism and antisemitism. Some other catholic outlets are alike. On the Internet, very active and zealous are neofascist groups; they have several MP’s and receive hefty financial subsidies from government agencies, Ministry of Culture in particular.
All this amounts to a 24/7 propaganda army – nationalistic, right-wing populist, radically conservative and staunchly catholic; anti-EU, anti-liberal, despising and attacking any democratic institution that has yet been left independent, like the office of ombudsman. And, obviously, 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’, subdue, or to suborn free private media. Official agencies and state-controlled companies, completely taken over by loyalist managers, withdrew most ads and anouncements from free media; among others – public tender notices regarding EU funding, and even antipandemic communication.
Moreover, since free media publish critical information and opinion, and their investigative reporters reveal scandals, frauds, corrupt dealings, they have become target of permanent legal bullying, insults and innuendos 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, and more than 70 against Gazeta Wyborcza. And these numbers are growing: today there are already around 100 lawsuits that we’ve had to fight since 2015. The fending-off those attacks consumes enormous cost, time, and effort 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 in the parliament, but eventually vetoed by the president. This assault has not ended yet because the regime-controlled regulator still demands that the parliament should pass the law to prevent some foreign investment in Polish media, under the disguise of ‘deconcentration’.
Also, PiS 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 German Verlagsgruppe Passau. After the deal, ‘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. Later, Orlen bought also a bankrupt press distribution firm, Ruch, the largest in Poland. In this way, the regime obtained a powerful instrument to win future elections, particularly regional and local.
All this leads the censorship by other means (official censorship being prohibited by the Polish Constitution).
And how about the cancelling of public opinion?
PiS politicians, government agencies, and other party-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, corruption is stubbornly ignored by PiS public officials.
Polish prime minister, 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 possesed not only by public figures but also by their spouses and families.
A recent lack of any proper government reaction to the ecological catastrophy on the Oder river has been entangled in official dis-information, coarse lies, conflicting half-truths, false accusations (‘it’s Germans who poisoned the Oder’), and, obviously, met near-silence in the regime-serving media.
Everyday experience of independent journalists is chasing officials in parliament corridors, staircases, vestibules of public buildings, while the latter hardly turn their heads, and if they say anything it is like: ‘ask a spokesperson, I have no time, I’m in a hurry, 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 toward reporters for ‘not being prepared’. These are not incidents, but a regular experience, highly humiliating for reporters who seek true facts and try to present the position ‘of the other side’.
So, because public opinion is regularly and systematically ignored by those in power, thepublic opinion ceases to exist altogether. Scandals and abuses by public offcials and loyalists have no consequences whatsoever; there is no accountability. Such a resignation as e.g. Boris Johnson’s for breaking covid rules and lying about it, is completely impossible under 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. (GW ranks 10th in Europe by subscriptions: 1. The Financial Times, 2. Bild, 3. The Telegraph, 4. The Economist, 5. The Times and The Sunday Times, 6. Le Monde, 7. The Guardian, 8. Corriere della Sera, 9. L’Equipe, 10. Gazeta Wyborcza).
Our achievement is especially spectacular becase in Poland people usually think that news is free and that they’ve already paid for the very access to the Internet. However, a considerable group of Polish citizens trust us and need us.
Currently, with 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; but not disregarded or reduced. The mission we are committed to is especially important now, in our troubled country, and in increasing troubled world – with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, worldwide assaults on democracy, and toxic political polarizations everywhere.
The Golden Pen Award, which we were granted and humbly accept today, helps. Helps carry on, helps persevere. Thank you.
Post scriptum: In the early 19th century, a Polish novelist, playwright, aristocrat, and adventurer, Jan count Potocki, published in French an innovative picaresque novel entitled ‘Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse’ (The Manuscript found in Zaragoza). Well, if you read it, you’ll find it rather more amusing than this present testimony/manuscript in Zaragoza.
Thank you once more.