The Politicization of Polish State Media – Isn't Death Enough?
By. Marius Heil, Luísa Moratelli, Emilie Joe Brandt
The tragic death of a Polish MP's son has fueled increased debate about the dire state of independent media in Poland. In this article, Marius, Luísa, and Emilie Joe delve into this important topic.
In Poland, the state-owned media is facing harsh criticism after the 15-year-old son of an opposition party leader died by suicide. This tragic death followed national news reports exposing he had been abused by a pedophile.
According to reports released in December by prominent Polish state media stations, TVP and Radio Szczecin, the abuse dated back to 2020, and the alleged perpetrator was a member of the opposition. While the media did not give the victims’ names, they gave their ages and explained that they were the children of an opposition MP.
PiS party member, Minister Czarnek, told the TVP “The same people who cry so loudly about the fight against pedophilia hide that there are pedophiles in their ranks,” adding that preventing the case from going public was “harming society.” However, a likely reason the case was kept private was to protect the identities of the two young children who the pedophile victimized.
When the news was revealed to the public in late December of 2022, it was widely circulated in the media and online. Due to the specificity of the information given, the public was easily able to identify the children and their mother, MP Magdalena Filiks of the opposition Civic Platform (PO) party.
Adrian Grycuk, CC BY-SA 3.0 PL <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/pl/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons
A large issue with the coverage provided by TVP and Radio Szczecin—two stations that are increasingly under the control of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS)—is the exposure of information that only the state prosecution could have provided. Critics argue that this proves cooperation between the District Prosecutor's Office in Szczecin, the Ministry of Justice more broadly, and Tomasz Duklanowski—the state media reporter who first broke the story.
Additionally, legal commentators like Judge Olympia Maluszek added, “In this case, no one agreed to publish data that would enable the identification of victims. Article 18 of the broadcast law states that information that would enable the identification of victims of crime cannot be transmitted,” highlighting how the publication of this story violated Polish law.
On March 5, MP Magdalena Filiks posted on her Twitter account about the death of her son, who died by suicide on 17 February 2023. The announcement of this tragedy ignited an outcry among the opposition and their supporters regarding the role that the state media might have played in contributing to the suicide. The leader of the centrist party Polska 2050, Szymon Hołownia, tweeted, “There will come a time of reckoning for those whose words bring death.”
On the other hand, the publication sparked a hate campaign against Ms. Filiks and PO, the largest opposition party in the country. In addition, politicians from the ruling PiS party have also deleted polemic social media posts commenting on the issue after its publication in December. In the following days, OKO.press, a renowned Polish investigative newspaper, published several reports investigating how this was an intentional, politically motivated hate campaign.
The journalists checked numerous Twitter accounts that were active in the campaign and highlighted their connections to politicians from the ruling party. The accounts had several common features: anonymity, bios supporting PiS, and hateful posts toward the opposition. According to the OKO investigation, the bots were followed by at least twenty PiS and right-wing nationals United Poland (SP) MPs, including Darius Matecki. Matecki is a councilor from Szczecin and the president of Solidarna Polska— besides being an associate of Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziboro and working as his social media manager. Matecki was one of the first to publicize Radio Szczecin’s article on social media, in addition to posts defending Mr. Duklanowski’s publications.
The control of the media is also pressing in view of the coming parliamentary elections this fall. In previous elections, the state media supported PiS, and often tried to discredit the opposition. Moreover, Poland's state-owned media has experienced serious changes since the ruling PiS gained victory in the 2015 parliamentary elections, so it is possible that they will play an even more dominant role in influencing electoral dynamics in Poland’s upcoming elections.
According to the 2022 Press Freedom Index, “while the private market has remained fairly pluralistic featuring influential independent media such as TVN, the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza or the online outlet Onet.pl, the public media, especially TVP, have been transformed into instruments of government propaganda.” Furthermore, Poland fell from 18th to 66th place between 2015 and 2022, according to the NGO’s annual press freedom ranking.
Donald Tusk, leader of the Civic Platform and former Polish Prime Minister and European Council president, tweeted on March 4, “We will hold PiS to account for every villainy, for all human harm and tragedies they have caused while in power.” The opposition plans extensive reforms of the state-owned media if it succeeds in the parliamentary elections later this year.
The traditional Catholic country is presently experiencing another controversial and polarizing case of sexual abuse. Already for years, the topic of clerical abuse has created deep political divisions in Polish society and politics. However, last week’s news coverage brought about new debates on allegations against Pope John Paul II. He is accused of having known of sexual abuse by priests subordinate to him during his tenure as the archbishop of Kraków. A new report by Polish broadcaster TVN claims that he allowed them to continue working in the church and that he even tried to prevent the authorities from learning about such crimes.
Following this, the Polish parliament, supported by the United Right, adopted a resolution defending Pope John Paul II, condemning the accusations as a “disgraceful media campaign.” Furthermore, the leading magazine Nie has been withdrawn from sale at Poland’s post offices and petrol stations that belong to state-owned oil giant Orlen, because it showed Pope John Paul II with a crucified doll attached to the cross on his crozier.
Nie reacted to the ban on sales placed on its magazine by stating, “Hello, censorship.” President of the Chamber of Press Publishers, Mark Frąckowiak, echoed this sentiment, saying that “a distributor has no right to suspend the distribution of a newspaper due to its content.”
Such cases are further polarizing an already deeply divided society and damaging trust in the media. The latest polls suggest a close race between the long-standing United Right government and the opposition. In the coming months, the domestic political arena in Poland will become even more tense and the state-owned media will certainly play a crucial role in shaping narratives and public opinion. 2023 provides new political opportunities for Poland, and it remains unknown whether Poles will punish their government for the increasing instrumentalization of state media.
While questions about the future of Polish politics remain unanswered, the heartbreaking death of Magdalena Filiks’s teenage son has rocked the nation. His death serves as a grave reminder of the destructive power of a state-owned media system that places the promotion of their party’s interests above all else.