Journalist Mariusz Kowalewski noticed something was amiss when his editors came to him with a new assignment: follow an outspoken critic of Poland's ruling party with a drone.
"The idea was to send this drone over to his house in order for him to notice it and to feel threatened, like he was being watched," Kowalewski recalls. "This was an intimidation method straight out of communism."
The order came from his editors at TVP, Poland's largest broadcaster, which oversees a vast network of public television and radio stations.
Kowalewski says he sabotaged the plan by giving the drone operator an outdated address, but he says the episode taught him public television is no longer serving the public. Instead, he says, it's serving Poland's governing right-wing populist party, Law and Justice. "Instead of information, viewers now get blunt propaganda that is meant to assure them that Law and Justice is the best party to rule this country," he says.
The party believes it is fighting an infiltration of liberal European values, spread through foreign-owned media, in this largely conservative Catholic country. Since Poles first voted Law and Justice into office in 2015, its government has not only taken control of the country's largest public broadcaster, but it has also vowed to "repolonize" the national media. Critics say this is code for turning them into government propaganda outlets. The government's moves to control the country's media have become a political flashpoint in this European Union member state, which the EU is investigating along with other various rollbacks of democratic norms in Poland since Law and Justice took office.
In early December, state-backed oil refiner PKN Orlen announced it was buying the private, German-owned Polska Press, a move that will put 20 of Poland's 24 regional daily newspapers under Orlen's control, as well as 120 weekly papers and many websites reaching an estimated 17.4 million online readers in a country of 38 million people.
Polish journalists are bracing themselves. "If I feel there is suddenly political pressure on me, I will be forced to quit," says Marek Twarog, editor-in-chief of Dziennik Zachodni, Poland's top-selling regional newspaper owned by Polska Press. "What has happened to TVP is making all of us worry about the political impact on our paper," he says.
"In Poland's interest"
TVP is taxpayer funded and previously was editorially independent. But in 2015, Law and Justice began passing legislation that led to a purge of the public broadcaster's editorial leadership and replaced them with party loyalists. It also put TVP under the supervision of a new National Media Council.
The council's chairman, lawmaker Krzysztof Czabanski, says the changes are making the public broadcaster more Polish.
"I'd prefer — regardless of political coloring — if we had Polish capital in Poland's media market. Because then we really can say that what is represented is perhaps politically diverse but ultimately in Poland's interest," he says.
"I know the changes we've made aren't politically popular with some in the opposition," he acknowledges. "But I say to those who don't like what we're doing, 'Win the election next time.' "
Yet media takeovers could hand the ruling party an unfair advantage. Media bias was a problem in Poland's last national elections, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors elections. Law and Justice won reelection in October 2019, but while voters "had numerous options available to them, their ability to make an informed choice was undermined by a lack of impartiality in the media, especially the public broadcaster," said Jan Petersen, head of the election observer mission that monitored the Polish vote.
TVP has only two competitors for the bulk of the country's viewers: Polsat, owned by the richest person in Poland, and TVN, owned by the U.S.-based Discovery. TVP, now under the ruling party's control, has the broadest reach. "Thirty-three percent of the population of Poland, they only have access to TVP24, which is 24 hours of news, so their brains are formed by that," says Andrzej Krajewski, a retired journalist and former adviser to Poland's National Broadcasting Council.
In Poland, the most basic digital television package that is free of charge comes with TVP's array of channels, including its 24-hour news channel. Both TVN and Polsat's 24-hour news channels require monthly fees.
Krajewski has spent years analyzing hundreds of hours of news coverage from TVP and its two rivals, focusing on how the public broadcaster has changed since the Law and Justice party took it over. "They are propagandists. They want to convince people that they are right and the opposition is wrong; that we are surrounded by enemies," Krajewski says.
TVP didn't respond to interview requests from NPR.
Propaganda then and now
At 7:30 each evening, TVP's nightly news program continues to enjoy the highest ratings in the country. And as its high-paced theme song pipes into televisions across the country from its studios above central Warsaw, in the street below, in the freezing winter weather, a dedicated group of protesters blare another song from their megaphones: the broadcaster's nightly news theme from Poland's communist era.
The news was propaganda then — and it's returned to propaganda now, says protest organizer Karol Grabski. "We've come here every day since the death of Mayor Adamowicz, who was murdered in Gdansk," he says.
Gdansk Mayor Pawel Adamowicz — a liberal critic of Law and Justice — was stabbed to death while he was on stage at a charity event in January 2019. Adamowicz had been a target of dozens of TVP news stories criticizing him for real estate dealings, his openness to migrants and his support of LGBT rights. Critics blame the network for creating an atmosphere that led to his killing.
Grabski leads his group of protesters in a chant that echoes through the empty city streets of Warsaw: "TVP Lies! TVP Lies!"
Rob Schmitz reported in Warsaw, Poland. Grzegorz Sokol, Aga Suszko and Jan Smolenski contributed to this report from Warsaw.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A growing number of leaders in Eastern Europe are, quote, "dropping the democratic facade." That warning comes in a new report from Freedom House, a U.S. government-funded NGO. One country that was cited - Poland, where the ruling party has placed judges under the control of politicians. It's also been stifling independent media voices, as NPR's Rob Schmitz reports.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Journalist Mariusz Kowalewski noticed something was amiss when his editors came to him with a new assignment. They asked him to start following an outspoken critic of Poland's ruling party with a drone.
MARIUSZ KOWALEWSKI: (Through interpreter) So the idea was to send this drone over his house in order for him to notice it and feel threatened, like he was being watched. This was an intimidation method straight out of communism.
SCHMITZ: And it was coming from his editors at TVP, Poland's largest broadcaster, which oversees a vast network of public television channels and radio stations. Kowalewski says he sabotaged the plan by giving the drone operator an outdated address. But the episode taught him public television was no longer serving the public. It was serving Poland's ruling party, known as Law and Justice.
KOWALEWSKI: (Through interpreter) Instead of information, viewers now get blunt propaganda that is meant to assure them that Law and Justice is the best party to rule this country.
SCHMITZ: The right-wing populist party has distinguished itself by fighting what it sees as an infiltration of liberal European values upon its largely conservative, Catholic country. That was the backdrop for a 2016 law that put TVP, an editorially independent broadcaster, under the supervision of a new National Media Council. Lawmaker Krzysztof Czabanski heads the council.
KRZYSZTOF CZABANSKI: (Through interpreter) I know the changes we've made aren't politically popular with some in the opposition. But I say to those who don't like what we're doing, win the election next time.
SCHMITZ: After the last election, the ruling party purged the editorial leadership of TVP, replacing them with party loyalists. Czabanski says the changes are making TVP more Polish.
CZABANSKI: (Through interpreter) I'd prefer if we had Polish capital in Poland's media market regardless of the political coloring because then we can really say that what is represented is perhaps politically diverse but ultimately in Poland's interest.
SCHMITZ: The Polish government has coined a name for this - repolanization (ph). One of the country's largest newspaper chains was repolanized. The state-controlled oil refiner PKN Orlen announced it was buying Polska Press from a German media group. The purchase will put 20 of Poland's 24 regional newspapers and 120 local magazines under Orlen's control. Polish journalists are bracing themselves.
MAREK TWAROG: (Through interpreter) If I feel there is suddenly political pressure on me, I'll be forced to quit.
SCHMITZ: That's Marek Twarog, editor-in-chief of Dziennik Zachodni. It's Poland's top-selling regional newspaper, owned by Polska Press. Twarog sees the experience of Poland's public broadcaster as an omen.
TWAROG: (Through interpreter) What has happened to TVP is making all of us worry about the political impact on our paper.
SCHMITZ: What has happened is that TVP is now being used to promote the ruling party's agenda, according to Andrzej Krajewski, a former adviser to Poland's National Broadcasting Council.
ANDRZEJ KRAJEWSKI: They are propagandists. They want to convince people that they are right. Opposition is wrong. We are surrounded by enemies.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Polish).
SCHMITZ: This is a TVP broadcast from 2016 that painted the liberal mayor of Gdansk as an enemy. It was one of many that attacked his real estate dealings as well as his support for migrants and LGBT rights. In January of 2019, a young man fatally stabbed the mayor, Pawel Adamowicz.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Polish).
SCHMITZ: In the two years since the murder, a small group of protesters has gathered every evening outside TVP's Warsaw headquarters, chanting, TVP lies. And as the 7:30 news music broadcast from the studios inside, demonstrators outside play a different tune.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SCHMITZ: The nightly news theme during Poland's communist era. The man holding the megaphone says, the news was propaganda then, and it's propaganda now.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Polish).
SCHMITZ: The European Union has noticed. It's investigating Poland for violating the EU's core values.
Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Warsaw. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.