Senior Polish officials last week confirmed reports that a state-owned oil company is negotiating to purchase 20 of the 24 regional newspapers in the country, which are currently owned by a German publishing group. That has been the pattern in Hungary, where independent journalism has been eliminated not by brute censorship but through the purchase of outlets by the government or friendly businessmen.
For those not eager to sell, Law and Justice’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has signaled that the party may press ahead with two laws it has long threatened to pass. One would limit foreign ownership of Polish media outlets, while the other would force the breakup of media companies that have multiple outlets. “Media in Poland should be Polish,” says Mr. Kaczynski, a nationalist populist who crusades against immigrants and gay rights. The obvious targets are newspapers, magazines and a television channel wholly or partially owned by German and U.S. companies.
The government’s campaign could devastate what remains of Polish democracy, which has already been badly weakened by Law and Justice’s takeover of the judiciary. Poland’s most popular and respected newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, is part of a conglomerate that also owns radio stations and a publishing house and is partly owned by two U.S. companies. The most influential television station — now that Law and Justice has turned the state broadcaster into a propaganda outlet — is TVN, which is owned by Discovery Inc., an American multinational. The government has already damaged Gazeta Wyborcza by blocking advertising purchases by state companies.
Media with U.S. connections might have some protection: The Kaczynski government styles itself as pro-American. To her credit, the U.S. ambassador in Warsaw, Georgette Mosbacher, has publicly pushed back against the incipient crackdown, tweeting that “forced fragmentation of the media will limit freedom of speech because only State-owned and small outlets will survive.” Pressure on German-owned media could also attract attention in Berlin and Brussels just as the European Union is debating whether to link an economic recovery package and long-term budget to respect by aid recipients for the rule of law.
Mr. Kaczynski, however, is sounding defiant. He has threatened that Poland would veto the E.U. budget rather than meet its democratic standards. As Donald Tusk, a former president of the European Council and a former Polish prime minister put it, Mr. Kaczynski “is ready to block E.U. aid for Poland so that he can continue to violate the rule of law with impunity.” If he persists in his attacks on free press, his government ought to suffer consequences in Washington, as well.