Fact check: Deputy PM boasts Poland has ‘total press freedom’

While Poland's Minister of Culture boasts that Poland has "total press freedom", Reporters Without Borders say that the ruling party has transformed Polish public media into the government’s propaganda mouthpieces

Polish Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Gliński boasted Poland has “total press freedom” but reports by independent watchdogs refute his claim.

“At the moment, we have total media freedom in Poland,” Gliński said during the inauguration of a media conference in Warsaw on Monday.

But Reporters Without Borders (RSF),  in its annual index of press freedom in 2018, said that the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has transformed public media into the government’s “propaganda mouthpieces”.

RSF’s bleak report on Visegrad countries was alarming. Poland ranked 58 out of 180 countries, sliding four places.

The Paris-based group cited the Czech Republic, down 11 places at 34th, where President Miloš Zeman turned up at a news conference with a fake Kalashnikov inscribed with the words “for journalists”, and Slovakia, down 10 places at 27th, where then Prime Minister Robert Fico called journalists “dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes” and “idiotic hyenas”. Jan Kuciak, a Slovakian investigative journalist was murdered along with his girlfriend in February leading to nationwide protests. And Polish government’s staunch ally, Hungary, was ranked 73.

The 2017 report by the Freedom House, an independent human rights organization, showed Poland’s press freedom status falling from “free” to “partly free.”

The international watchdog organization said the fall was “due to government intolerance toward independent or critical reporting, excessive political interference in the affairs of public media, and restrictions on speech regarding Polish history and identity.”

“Countries that only ten years ago seemed like they were becoming strong democracies, such as Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and Venezuela are backsliding,” Michael J. Abramowitz, the president of the Freedom House warned in a video statement.

Gliński who is also Poland’s minister of culture is no stranger to censorship himself. In November 2015, he unsuccessfully ordered the suspension of a play called Death and the Maiden by the Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek. He labeled the play as “pornography” due to a simulated sex scene in the performance.

Karolina Lewicka, a TVP presenter, was suspended only hours after her heated exchange with Gliński who called her show a “propaganda program” when he was grilled about his controversial move regarding the play. Lewicka was reinstated after the state-run ethics committee said: “she had not breached TVP’s journalism ethics.”

However, Gliński is not the only minister of the Polish nationalist government who has resorted to coercion in order to silence a journalist. Former Polish Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz filed a complaint against investigative journalist Tomasz Piątek who published Macierewicz and his Secrets last year exploring the minister’s alleged ties to the Russian military intelligence services.

Macierewicz filed a complaint at a military court accusing Piętek of “terrorism” but the charges were dropped in March 2018. Macierewicz also accused Piątek of breaching criminal code for “using violence or unlawful threat [which] affects a government authority performing its duty” and “insulting a public official in the course and in connection with the performance of their duties.”

After sweeping to power, PiS handed over the control of the state-run media to the treasury minister. Formerly, the heads of state broadcasters were appointed by the National Broadcasting Council, a constitutional body set up to protect the freedom of speech.

The move has turned state television TVP and the state-run news agency PAP into the ruling party’s propaganda arm.