COVID-19 affected news audiences and hit media revenues in Poland as elsewhere. But in the deeply polarised Polish media landscape, the pandemic was overshadowed by mounting political pressures in a turbulent election year. Independent newsrooms saw some journalists arrested, assaulted, and fined. And the state started to extend its control over private media.
The ruling party pursued its radical agenda in 2020 with the pandemic providing further impetus for its moves to redraw Poland's media landscape. In November 2020 the state-owned oil company, Orlen, bought Ruch, the biggest newspaper distributor. Later Orlen bought the largest regional daily newspaper group, Polska Press, from its German proprietors, making the government owner of a major media outlet for the first time since the fall of Communism. Publishers were understandably concerned at a state-owned firm controlling distribution and becoming a direct competitor. Orlen had already created an advertising agency, Sigma Bis(jointly with state-controlled insurer PZU),that is likely to allocate advertising spend by state-owned companies.
Several pro-government titles already benefit from significant amounts of state advertising, according to research by Tadeusz Kowalski at Warsaw University. For the weekly magazine Sieci this amounted to almost a third (31%) of 2020 advertising revenues and for the right-wing daily Gazeta Polska Codziennie it was over half (53%). Meanwhile, plans for an advertising tax added to pressure on the industry overall. Independent Polish media denounced it as an attempt to undermine press freedom. Commercial TV channels and radio stations went off air for 24 hours on 10 February 2021 in protest – as did a number of web portals.
As an election year, 2020 saw an intensification of conflict between the ruling coalition and its critics. Public service broadcasting, which depends increasingly on the annual award of state subsidies to top up declining licence income, as expected, acted as a propaganda vehicle for government. But government control can occasionally backfire in surprising ways. When public radio’s channel Trojka removed a song criticising the ruling party leader from their weekly chart, in May 2020, some prominent journalists resigned in protest. Thanks to crowdfunding campaigns they launched two new independent stations online. The incident also hit Trojka’s audience share, which fell to just 1.9% in the quarter ending February 2021, compared to 5.1% for the same period a year before.
Physical attacks on journalists took place around two major demonstrations. The first in October 2020 was a massive protest against a controversial ruling by the Polish Constitutional Court restricting abortions. At least three reporters covering it, including one from the Gazeta Wyborcza, were injured following assaults by masked men. Other journalists faced charges or fines after covering protests by the All-Poland Women’s Strike movement, which played a key role in the October demonstrations. And then reporters from Newsweek Polska were beaten up by police while covering the far-right Independence Day March on 11 November, despite wearing ‘Press’ jackets.
The courts have also been used by those affiliated with the ruling party to suppress independent media, creating a chilling effect. Since 2015 more than 60 defamation lawsuits have been filed against Gazeta Wyborcza and at least 40 against Ringier Axel Springer Polska, owners of Newsweek Polska and Onet.pl, the leading online news site.
Foreign ownership has on occasions been an important bulwark of independence in a difficult environment for local media but proposals for a ‘Repolonisation law’ would limit this. Both the top rating news broadcaster, TVN24, and top online site, Onet.pl, remain foreign owned, by Discovery Communications and Ringier Axel Springer Polska respectively. But in addition to the Polska Press sale to Orlen, Bauer Media shut seven magazines and sold Interia.pl, the fourthmost used weekly online news source in our survey, to Poland’s biggest media conglomerate, Cyfrowy Polsat.
The pandemic added to financial pressures, forcing publishers and broadcasters to cut staff and salaries. The first title to fall victim was in March 2020 when Wprost weekly closed its print edition, a casualty of the closure of newsstands in lockdown. Six months of temporary government support helped others but journalist layoffs followed when it ended.
Other companies saw subscription spikes or accelerated digital development. TVN successfully switched its video-on-demand (VOD) business from advertising to a subscription model and its news arm, TVN24, introduced a premium section behind the registration wall, thought to be a step towards paid content. Gazeta Wyborcza daily added a premium offer, with interviews with experts and politicians available live for subscribers, a behind-the-scenes newsletter, and premium podcasts.
Journalist at Gazeta Wyborcza and former Reuters Institute Journalist Fellow
Interest in all news sources declined this year, with television news showing none of the growth under lockdown seen elsewhere. Online news portals Onet and WP remain the top destinations online.
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Trust in news overall recovered the three percentage point loss from last year. The remaining independent media tend to score better on trust, while the state-controlled public broadcaster TVP again comes bottom of the trust ranking, with more distrusting (46%) than trusting it (36%).