Poland’s Government Is Systematically Silencing Opposition Voices

Adam Michnik was a hero of the anti-communist struggle. Now his renowned newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, is under attack from a ruling party that refuses to tolerate dissent.

Adam Michnik, a prominent communist-era dissident who is now editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's leading liberal newspaper, is pictured in his newspaper's office on Feb. 23, 2018 in Warsaw.
Adam Michnik, a prominent communist-era dissident who is now editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's leading liberal newspaper, is pictured in his newspaper's office on Feb. 23, 2018 in Warsaw. JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images

In the modern, bright Warsaw building where Poland’s leading newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, has its newsroom, there is an office like no other. It belongs to the paper’s founding editor, Adam Michnik, the historian and dissident who battled the communist regime.

Visiting Michnik’s office is like entering a museum devoted to the struggle against communism and the early years of Polish democracy. Michnik, who was imprisoned several times by the communist regime, is one of the country’s most important public intellectuals and journalists. On his walls hang dozens of plaques, honorary degrees, and journalism prizes from around the world.

For many Poles, Michnik is the face of Gazeta Wyborcza, which turned 30 this month, an age it shares with Poland’s democracy. But the future of the paper he helped establish is uncertain. Today, it is the main voice holding the ruling far-right Law and Justice (PiS) party accountable, while facing constant attacks from that government. According to Michnik, PiS wishes to destroy the private media and eliminate of any opposition voices in the press.

When PiS won elections in 2015, it commenced an historic power grab, which included attacking public institutions, taking control of courts, and installing party loyalists at powerful public companies, although late last year the Court of Justice of the European Union ordered PiS to reverse changes at the Supreme Court that forced out judges by implementing obligatory retirements.

At 72, Michnik is eloquent and has a keen sense of humor. But when it comes to discussing the current state of the press in Poland and the attempts from the government to silence Gazeta Wyborcza, his tone becomes serious. “There are at least 25 reasons to chop off our heads,” he said. As a major influence on the national conversation, a left-leaning voice of accountability, and a paper with strong ties to Western Europe and the United States, it has become one of PiS’s prime targets in its efforts to consolidate power.

For Michnik, the situation has gotten so bad that he fears for his safety. “Anything could happen,” he said. “They could send militia to Wyborcza’s office. I might find drugs in my apartment, and the next day the police could come to search my home.”

As PiS took control of public companies and the courts over the past few years, it was also gutting public broadcasting, firing hundreds of journalists at Poland’s public television and radio networks, and installing staunch party loyalists. The changes in public media have led to broadcasts like one earlier this month that featured Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, Poland’s former prime minister, and a founder of the main opposition party, the Civic Platform.

In the broadcast, run by the public broadcaster TVP, Tusk’s photo was shown next to images of Hitler and Stalin, and the presenter claimed that “historical connotations from that period echo regularly in Tusk’s statements.” Although TVP has always tended to mirror the views of the party in power, it has never done so to this extent.

Scholars, watchdogs, and prominent journalists—both Polish and international—have decried the changes PiS has instituted at TVP. Adam Szynol, an associate professor and media researcher at the University of Wroclaw, said the extent of the change has been astonishing. “The purges and political changes and the level of propaganda in Polish public TV is unprecedented since 1989,” he said. For Michnik, the misinformation on TVP reminds him of the communist era: “It’s the same as in 1968—the same language, the same rhetoric, the same mentality.”

PiS has also made sustained attacks against private media outlets it doesn’t like. Since it started to take control of Polish state companies, one of PiS’s moves has been to cancel ad purchases from these companies for media outlets that questioned the party’s policies.

Based on data released by Kantar Media, a British research company, in the first seven months of 2017, Gazeta Wyborcza received roughly $520,000 in advertising revenue from state companies and various Polish ministries. For the same period in 2018, the amount fell to about $55,000. As ad revenue dropped, publications that supported the government received large increases, including a 700 percent jump in state company ad purchasing at the conservative magazine Do Rzeczy between 2015 and 2016.

The attacks are also happening in the courts. Since coming to power, PiS has filed a deluge of lawsuits—mainly alleging that Gazeta Wyborcza defamed the party. “They are trying to get rid of the media by putting a plastic bag on our heads to suffocate us,” Jaroslaw Kurski, Wyborcza’s first deputy editor in chief, told Foreign Policy.

Kurski is part of a family at the center of the battle over Poland’s media. TVP, the public broadcaster and mouthpiece for PiS’s leadership, is run by his brother, Jacek Kurski. Once allies close to the Solidarity leader and former Polish president Lech Walesa, Jaroslaw and Jacek Kurski began to grow apart in the years after the fall of communism. In some ways, their split illustrates the divide between two political movements that started in the 1990s and grew to the polarization that exists today: between free market liberals and socialist conservatives. But no matter how wide the gap is between their opinions, the Kurski brothers, now estranged, come from the same formative time and struggle against communism. As the journalist Anne Applebaum put it, they are two sides of the same coin.

Meanwhile, the legal attacks continue. Pauline Ades-Mevel, the head of the Europe and Balkan desk at Reporters Without Borders, said a common tactic of authoritarian regimes that wish to weaken the media is to engage in legal harassment. “It sucks up valuable time and resources that could be used somewhere else by the outlets being attacked,” she said.

In February, the de facto leader of Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, did just that, attacking Gazeta Wyborcza after it raised questions about his involvement in plans to build a luxury skyscraper in Warsaw. Kaczynski insisted that the paper retract the stories and publish an apology, but when it refused, he demanded the public prosecutor charge the authors with defamation.

In parallel, various people connected to PiS have filed around 30 legal proceedings against the paper. Jaroslaw Kurski, the deputy editor, said his teams are struggling to cope with legal attacks that have become the norm. “They are trying to provoke a chilling effect,” he said. “We are flooded by dozens of appeals. Our legal services have a lot of trouble handling all this.”

PiS has also reportedly tried to take control of the newspaper’s distribution process. According to Kurski and other senior members of Gazeta Wyborcza’s staff, the state oil company, Orlen, instructed employees at gas stations to hide the newspaper or display it in places where people could not access it. Last month, Orlen’s CEO, Daniel Obajtek, tweeted his intention to take over Ruch, a network of 15,000 kiosks across the country and a historical retailer for the Polish press. Critics say this move could make it harder for people to buy Gazeta Wyborcza and give PiS power in press distribution.

The state oil company, Orlen, instructed employees at gas stations to hide the newspaper or display it in places where people could not access it.

As much as TVP is now an organ of the ruling party, Gazeta Wyborcza has attached itself to the opposition, and criticizing the government has become commonplace in Michnik’s paper. For Daniel Tilles, an assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow, Gazeta Wyborcza stands up for liberal democracy in Poland. But he added that, “it has a clear and very strong political position. Especially in the last three or four years, it’s become even more partisan in coverage.”

That the paper leans to the left has made it a target for people in Poland, even those who find the propaganda on TVP distasteful. Lukasz Warzecha is a columnist for the conservative magazine Do Rzeczy. “Before 2015, you had the media picture completely dominated by the left part of the political scene,” he said. “Now the picture is much more balanced.”

The coming years are uncertain for Gazeta Wyborcza. In some ways, its fate is tied the political future of PiS, which just won big in the European Parliament elections. According to Kurski, there are any number of ways the government could use policy to attack the paper such as claiming that it’s too dominant—an anti-competition argument called deconcentration. But some media companies in Poland may have a level of protection, because foreign companies hold large stakes in them. The biggest competitor to TVP, for example, is the station TVN, which is owned by a subsidiary of the American company Discovery Inc.

Although PiS’s attacks have yet to succeed in shutting down the private media, they are certainly making an impact. More concerning, perhaps, is that they signify the further consolidation of power and pushing Poland in the direction of Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has nearly squashed independent media outlets.

Poland is moving in the direction of Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has nearly squashed independent media outlets.

Jaroslaw Kurski, the deputy editor, sees the potential for PiS—and figures like his own brother—to create a media landscape similar to Hungary’s, saying that his newspaper is one of the few remaining protectors of Polish democracy. “We have become a barricade,” he said. “For our readers, we are a fresh bottle of water every day against the national propaganda.”

Poland’s next crucial vote is the parliamentary election to be held this fall. Current polls show that PiS could very well keep its majority in parliament, although an opposition coalition could take power. If PiS wins a strong majority, few safeguards would be left to prevent it from strengthening its grip on the media.

On the 30th anniversary of Gazeta Wyborcza’s first edition, published on May 8, 1989, Kurski encouraged readers to write what they would expect from the newspaper in the next 30 years. Kurski also co-wrote an editorial in which he reflected, “There is a proverb in Poland—don’t worry when it’s bad because it’s going to get better. Worry when it’s good because it might get worse. Unfortunately, we were not worried enough.”

Since PiS came to power, the reality for independent media has gone from bad to worse. With PiS newly empowered after the European Parliament election, the future seems ­dim.

Makana Eyre is a freelance journalist based in Paris. Twitter: @makanaeyre

Martin Goillandeau is a journalist at CNN International in London. Twitter: @mgoillandeau