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Poland: the fall of the free media, the rise of a “Father Director”

Polonia
©Michal Kukawski  |   Protest al presei din Polonia, 10 februarie 2021.

Poland is following the path marked out by Hungary and its Prime minister. After subjugating the Constitutional Tribunal and the Supreme Court to itself, the nationalist government of Law and Justice (PiS) party started to ruthlessly choke independent news organizations and restrict freedom of speech. Soon, the media mogul Tadeusz Rydzyk may become the most important unelected man in Poland and the strongest player on the media market, apart from the public broadcaster. He is a priest, businessman and close friend of many right-wing politicians. Since 2015, he has received about €50 million from the state money. And this flow of taxpayers cash won't stop - there are still almost 1,000 days left to the end of the term of the PiS government.

The day the media fell silent

Anybody who turned on any of the private TV channels or radio stations in Poland on Wednesday February the 10th could see or hear nothing more than a short message: “Your favorite show supposed to be broadcasting here now. Find out what the world will look like without independent media”. Dozens of news outlets - online sites and newspapers - published black front pages bearing the same title: „Media without choice”.  This is the first such a large-scale protest in which commercial media companies have reached an agreement across divisions and expressed opposition to a proposed media tax that they say threatens the country's independent press and is another blow to democratic institutions.
More than forty publishers and media organizations published an open letter to Polish authorities that described the burden on the independent press of such a tax as “scandalous” and unfair. While officials have said that the proposed tax will also affect state-owned outlets, the media organizations argued that the financial support those outlets receive from the government (public television and radio which became a government mouthpiece receive about €460 million from taxpayers every year) means it will be independent news sites that will suffer disproportionately. Poland's nationalist government describes the proposed levy as a "solidarity fee" of up to 15 percent on advertising revenue and says the aim is to raise money for the National Health Fund, and for culture, struggling with the coronavirus epidemic. Private media owners said the planned advertising tax would add €220 million annually to their costs and could send many companies struggling with falling revenues under. “We strongly oppose the use of the epidemic as an excuse to introduce another new, exceptionally heavy burden on the media,” they wrote as websites and TV screens in Poland went dark for 24 hours. The Polish government takes an example from prime minister Victor Orban, who introduced a similar advertising tax (commonly known as the RTL tax) in Hungary in 2014 and we can all see how government campaign against freedom of speech ended for the media there – the last independent radio station Klubradio lost its broadcasting license last week (the regulator justified his decision by the fact that the radio was playing slightly less Hungarian music one day than required by national law).

Father Director’s media empire

Since the beginning of its rule in 2015, the Polish nationalist government have said that there's too much foreign-owned media in the country and something must be done about it (recently, Poland's largest state-controlled oil refiner, PKN Orlen, bought the country's leading regional media company, Polska Press, saying it makes sound business sense). Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has described the levy as part of broader European attempts to tax digital tech giants such as Facebook and Google. However, the Polish proposals would also apply to domestic players in the digital market. This will not affect the media empire belonging to Rev. Tadeusz Rydzyk, 75, who likes to be called “Father Director”. His Radio Maryja network, TV Trwam television and Nasz Dziennik newspaper do not need advertising revenue because they are supported by donations from its audience (among them is Mr. Jan Kobylański, an Uruguay-based billionaire) and ministries. Thus, both Radio Maryja and TV Trwam are not required to disclose the exact sources of their financing or enterprises, and do not pay taxes. At the same time, they're known for promoting harmful and untrue content, which has repeatedly aroused controversy in Poland and abroad. Radio's and TV's programs that reach millions and are often the sole source of information for many older people (voters) in rural Poland, offer a daily portion of disturbing stories about a world without faith, where “LGBT deviants” and “left-wing terrorists” control the social rhetoric, universities are corrupted by “neo-Marxists,” and the Roman Catholic Church is under mortal threat, for example, by people who “spread false information” about pedophile priests (when documentary films were released recently revealing examples of how priests sexually abused children and how Polish church officials covered it up, there were many that refused to acknowledge the evidence that painted the picture of an institution that lost its way, and instead felt that the Church needed to be defended).

Church politics and party politics

Priests in Poland have long played an outsize role in shaping the political life of this deeply Catholic country. With a divided public distrustful of the news media and naturally suspicious of its neighbors to both the east and the west, priests hold a singular place of authority in Polish society. Mr. Jarosław Kaczyński, whose party won the last two parliamentary and presidential elections, knows it well and owes much to "Father Director". When Law and Justice swept to power in 2015 by promoting a potent mix of aggrieved nationalism, widespread social welfare spending and appeals to the faithful, Tadeusz Rydzyk’s support was critical. “We need to take good care of Poland, Poland’s future and faith, because they want to whip it away from us,” the priest told a crowd of supporters just before the last parliamentary elections in autumn 2019. “We know of course which party we are going to vote for. But make sure the people we choose from this party are righteous, will defend the church, Catholics and our values.” This statement shows not only that he pointed out to millions of people which party they should vote for, but was also a clear message to politicians: if you want me to be your ally, if you want to be invited to my TV and radio shows, you have to make an effort. Many members of the PiS party, including its leader, sharpened their tone of speech just before the elections to fit in with the narrative imposed by Father Tadeusz Rydzyk and his media. When Jarosław Kaczynski, the head of Law and Justice, kicked off the campaign season two years ago, he said that Polish patriotism and the Catholic church are forever linked. “Christianity is part of our national identity. The church was and is a preacher and possessor of the only system of values fully known in Poland,” Mr. Kaczynski said in a rally. “Besides the church, there is only nihilism — I repeat it again. And we reject this nihilism, because nihilism builds nothing, nihilism destroys everything.” It was a version of what Father Rydzyk was telling his supporters for years. The problem is that not so long ago, his speeches aroused the opposition of the political elite even from the rightists, but now they mark the mainstream of political discourse. Radio Maryja has been promoting a full ban on abortion since its inception and in the past it hasn't spared harsh criticism even against the wife of the former president of Poland and Jarosław Kaczyński twin brother (Lech and Maria Kaczyński died in a plane crash in 2010), calling her in 2007 “a witch who should perform euthanasia on herself", because she signed a statement to protest a tightening of Poland's already strict abortion laws. Furthermore, according to the Anti-Defamation League, the radio has promoted nationalism and antisemitism since it was established in 1991. The charges of anti-Semitism against Radio Maryja have brought the station to worldwide attention. Today, all that criticism doesn't matter. The fact is that Tadeusz Rydzyk's support of PiS party has delivered millions of votes and, in turn, the government has showered his growing business empire with tens of millions of euros in tax breaks and grants.

When money flows. A Maybach gifted by a homeless man.

From the beginning of Law and Justice (PiS) rule in Poland, public money flows to entities associated with Father Tadeusz Rydzyk (foundation, few companies and university) in many big and small streams. As the investigative journalists of the OKO.press portal calculated, they have received at least 217 million zlotych which is about €50 million so far. It looks as if ministries and various state institutions are racing, which of them will allocate more money to support Father Rydzyk's initiatives - media, geothermal energy, cancer research, memorial park and recently also a museum commemorating Poles who saved Jews during the Second World War. Ministry of Culture and National Heritage will allocate nearly €25 million for its construction. The money will go to the Lux Veritas Foundation, the president of which is Tadeusz Rydzyk and which owns Radio Maryja, TV Trwam, but also the Geotermia Toruń, company which implements the well known idea-fix by “Father Director”: construction of a geothermal heating plant in Toruń (city about 200 kilometers northwest of Warsaw where all the companies run by the powerful priest are located). The National Fund for Environmental Protection has supported this initiative in recent years with almost €10 million. Hundreds of thousands of euros transferred to the accounts of the Tadeusz Rydzyk's university and Foundation also come from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Investment and Development and the budget reserve at the Prime Minister's order. There are dozens of state institutions that supported Father Rydzyk's "works" and it is very difficult to count all of it today. It seems like he himself is already lost in what he got from whom. A few years ago he claimed that he had received a Maybach limousine, a car worth several hundred thousand zloty, from a homeless man.

A taste of things to come

This week, the Ministry of Culture, National Heritage and Sport announced the results of a grant competition for cultural magazines. The winners did not include ambitious and recognized publications on literature (Dwutygodnik or Zeszyty Literackie), but openly right-wing and Christian magazines (one of them is Faith, Patriotism and Art) promoting conservative values and the only right party line.

It turns out that Poles might find out what the world looks like without independent media very soon.

 

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  • Commercial media companies have reached an agreement across divisions and expressed opposition to a proposed media tax that they say threatens the country's independent press and is another blow to democratic institutions.
  • Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has described the levy as part of broader European attempts to tax digital tech giants such as Facebook and Google. However, the Polish proposals would also apply to domestic players in the digital market. This will not affect the media empire belonging to Rev. Tadeusz Rydzyk, 75, who likes to be called “Father Director”.
  • Many members of the PiS party, including its leader, sharpened their tone of speech just before the elections to fit in with the narrative imposed by Father Tadeusz Rydzyk and his media. When Jarosław Kaczynski, the head of Law and Justice, kicked off the campaign season two years ago, he said that Polish patriotism and the Catholic church are forever linked.
  • From the beginning of Law and Justice (PiS) rule in Poland, public money flows to entities associated with Father Tadeusz Rydzyk (foundation, few companies and university) in many big and small streams. As the investigative journalists of the OKO.press portal calculated, they have received at least 217 million zlotych which is about €50 million so far.
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