Free Expression in Contemporary Poland & How The Media Complex and Political Establishment Collude

Free Expression in Contemporary Poland & How The Media Complex and Political Establishment Collude

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Everyone perennially pays lip service to the importance of free expression, but it is only in periods of extreme stress on this issue, after Charlie Hebdo, for example, that it comes to the front and is actively defended. By not having more concern for all the subtle, coercive, and undermining acts of censorship that regularly occur, I believe we allow a crony system to fester and become ever more pernicious in the way that it crowds out the free, the uncompromised, the productive, and the competitive in a society.
For my father, Leopold Tyrmand, a Polish anti-communist dissident, writer and journalist in the 1950’s and 60’s, who spent much of his adult Polish life battling the censors and being blacklisted for how he expressed himself; free speech and a free press were the fundamental issues from which all his political beliefs sprung.

It is worth recalling the First Amendment of the United States Constitution which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The First Amendment, which codified the rights of a free citizen in the new American Republic, an experiment in democracy that we now can look back on as a resounding success, is a blanket protection for all forms of free expression. It goes even further than just protecting free speech, press, assembly and religion. In fact, the First Amendment encourages free citizens to complain by inputting, by suggestion, the right to petition the government for, as the framers put it: “a redress of grievances.”

Sadly, such a protection was not codified into Polish law—in either the Polish May Constitution of 1791 nor in 1989 after the famous Round Table talks where the despotic communist power holders and the opposition (with overwhelming popular support and a strong legitimate mandate) got together to peacefully transition to democracy. Because these constitutions never codified unfettered free expression, the risk of an illegitimate power structure coercing the citizenry has remained high ever since.

I aim to address, with plenty of examples, the manner in which free expression is being impeded in Poland today (but would be protected in America) and the manner in which both the media class and the political class work hand in hand to make sure expression is not fully free and unencumbered as the risk to their anti-competitive power structures would be destabilized if it were.

The first and most pernicious example is in the manner in which criticism (especially that of visible public figures) is easily stifled by the civil justice system. What I find to be the most toxic to democracy is when the elected and appointed political class engages in this reprehensible practice.

In theory, an integral component of the role of the politician is to continually defend his or her actions to those he or she serves and to openly and honestly answer criticism head-on. Because political criticism is not absolutely protected, too often one cannot publicly “call-out” and thus catalyse robust investigation of corrupt anti-competitive practices. These practices have become institutionally protected by laws crafted by the same political actors who benefit from stifling independent oversight.

This is where we have to make a distinction between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. When government officials dole out overvalued contracts for unnecessary work to their friends, it may not be a violation under the law (codified by those doling out the contracts), but it certainly is a violation of the spirit of rule of law in a constitutional republic. Unrestricted free speech and the correlative adjunct, free press, is the only weapon that can neuter this cronyism by informing potential voters of systemic corruption.

I can relate a tangible example of this from my own recent experience. By social media proxy, Roman Giertych, a lawyer (and a former Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister) for many of the incumbent Polish government’s highest elected and appointed officials, stated earlier this year that he, on behalf of then-foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, would be filing a lawsuit against (one of the biggest online news platforms in Poland) and myself.

Ostensibly, this was in response to Onet having published a Facebook comment on their news site in which I had suggested that the hypothetical example I cited a few moments ago, of paying one’s friends from the public treasury no-bid contracts many times in excess of the market rate, is, to quote myself: “what fraud looks like.” Sikorski had been doing just this as he had paid his friend (former UK Ambassador to Poland Charles Crawford) hundreds of thousands of Polish zloty to proofread his speeches- orders of magnitude in excess of market rates and despite the fact that he is married to a renowned speaker and writer of English (journalist Anne Applebaum- more to follow on her body of work), has a full staff for this task, and proudly trumpets his OxBridge education at every opportunity. All this had been well documented in the preceding days in a major press platform (Wprost) known for its investigative reporting, particularly of those in power.

Given that I had written these remarks while in New York and under the protection of the First Amendment, in English, to a small group of friends and followers, on a personal non-commercial page, and on a platform operated by an American entity, this was not really a winnable case. Rather, it was merely an act of bluster from Mr. Giertych. This was the sort of action that he regularly deploys as a tool to silence critics of the political figures in the cabal that he represents.

The burdens that politically connected actors like this impose upon a free people who may want to express ideas that are unpopular with certain segments is such that criticism and the plurality of alternative viewpoints, the lifeblood of democracy, are stifled. Without an environment for unfettered debate, where the best ideas and the best people rise to the top, freedom and ultimately prosperity are constantly threatened and never maximized.

Another example of how free expression is undermined in Poland is the subversive work of the mainstream press itself—particularly it’s most mature segment, which mostly utilizes conventional distribution practices. This segment historically has been better capitalized; but in recent years, the industry has faced the creative destruction that new distribution technologies have wrought and they are now scrambling to shift their businesses to these alternative methods of delivery. As this industry has become rife with cronyism, the focus now is on pleasing special interests for favours and seeking protections as a cartel rather than embracing competition. The legacy players in the media industry cannot maintain their share in this dynamic—and more egalitarian—new media system where the barriers to entry are low. The old players remain bloated, stagnant, and slow to adapt.

The ‘mainstream’ media’s ideological bent has always slanted towards the left. This is news to no one. My father often wrote about how the media’s predetermined agenda—both in the US and Poland—impacts the way in which politics is consumed by the masses. Unfortunately, what is new to the dynamic—given that their motive is now just as financial as it is ideological—is that most Polish mainstream platforms, reliant on state orchestrated protection, coordinate what they communicate and “sell” to the mass market with their political partners.

The most insidious aspect of this is that this is done under a veneer of independence—in an effort to convince the consumer/voter that what is being delivered informs rather than manipulates. And the easiest way these ‘leaders’ of the press manipulate the popular narrative is by omission.

Last year, the newsweekly Wprost published transcripts of recordings of Polish politicians engaging in overtly corrupt back room deals over expensive dinners billed to taxpayers. This had the potential to bring down the entire government by prompting mass resignations and leading to numerous potential criminal charges. The mainstream media machine went into hyper-drive to defend, play down, spin, and protect the principals involved. However, the underlying acts of the scandal were not discussed by any major platform (omission), except by Wprost which exposed the tapes in the first place—despite the fact that the content of the conversations was positively frightening.

To illustrate how egregious these violations of law were: One tape revealed the head of the constitutionally mandated independent central bank- the National Bank of Poland President Marek Belka- actively coordinating monetary policy with an emissary of the current government- Interior Minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz- in a clearly delineated attempt to swing an upcoming election in the favour of the incumbent party to which Sienkiewicz (and Belka) belong. This conspiracy to maintain a weak/depreciated currency in order to forestall any possible indications of a potential recession and to help finance the purchase of the national election through expanded borrowing is tantamount to stealing from every citizen in Poland and every zloty denominated investor. (Expanded sovereign borrowing was made feasible through this “easy” and “cheap” monetary policy and bolstered by the fact that debt to GDP ratio limits were rendered inconsequential the previous year after the private sector pension industry was nationalized by the state- turning a liability into an asset and thus reducing the numerator in the ratio.)

It was also reprehensible that the wife— Anne Applebaum—of one of the majorly implicated players—Radoslaw Sikorski (yet again)—in these embarrassing revelations worked vociferously to defend her husband and his fellow incriminated officials in print and in speech both domestically and internationally. (As a self-described ‘journalist’, she has availed herself of mainstream media platforms internationally in the UK, US, and Western Europe in addition to the domestic Polish platforms. These include the Washington Post and the Daily Telegraph in the UK.) Her contributions to the discourse clearly did not meet the definition of journalism since the most important facts of the case were never disclosed (again: omission).

The defence offered time and again by the mainstream media was that the actors exposed on undercover tapes had their privacy rights violated and that this crime had superseded any other that might have taken place (which of course went unmentioned). The media attempted to sell the idea that their privacy rights were more important than the right of citizens not to be duped by their elected and appointed officials. Moreover, when the state sent internal security service agents to extract the ‘evidence’ that Wprost’s editor-in-chief ostensibly had on his laptop—all of which had been deemed pertinent to the cases of privacy violations that they were investigating—the images of physical force being used at the magazine’s offices and the protests that ensued again garnered no reactions and virtual silence from the “mainstream” press.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the current Polish government, which has been widely implicated in this scandal was recently working to pass legislation (right before their current terms of office are up) that would dismiss and render void any evidence gathered of illegal activity that is considered to have violated a politician’s privacy.

With their electoral prospects in doubt the left leaning incumbents (PO- Civic Platform) have again in recent weeks turned to their sympathetic media cabal to brazenly manufacture a conspiracy suggesting that it was the opposition party (PiS- Law and Justice) that was responsible for the aforementioned hidden tapes that so scandalized the incumbent party and has led to their current travails. One of the leading politically active media figures, the editor of Newsweek Poland: Tomasz Lis, oversaw the printing of a recent “news article” suggesting the above conspiracy and putting forth that the whole affair (known in Poland as aferatosmowa or “tapes scandal”) was purely an orchestrated sham with the tapes having been doctored by the opposition party. This claim was made, merely weeks before the election, with no evidence, record, or credible witness introduced to validate it. It was merely conjecture attempted to be disbursed as “news.” When the story broke Anne Applebaum, the self-described “journalist”/spin-doctor married to disgraced incumbent party member Radoslaw Sikorski (both mentioned above), took to Twitter to distribute this “story” to the world in English so as to influence international perceptions of her fellow travellers despite this story not having met any of the usual burdens of fact checking taught in Journalism 101.

Beyond the previously discussed methods of media manipulation—which include omission, spin, defence, coordination, the manufacture and printing of known falsehood, and the weaponization of frivolous lawsuits—there exists one more method that only the biggest politically connected rent-seekers in the media can even begin to dream of: the bailout.

As an investor, this is the one that undermines my faith in an economy the most, whether in the US, the Euro-zone, or Poland. When a monolithic corporate entity cannot compete or adapt, it withers and dies. This is a good thing. And it paves the way for new entrants and innovation. New blood brings new ideas and keeps societies competitive. But the breakdown in competition that exists in a free market when those who cannot compete begin to get tax-payer subsidies or infusions of capital from the government to stay afloat is unacceptable.

This is happening in Poland today. The reason that this is so dangerous to freedom in aggregate is that by subsidizing one crony’s right to free expression, everyone else—whether they are individuals or competitive businesses—has their rights to competitive expression undermined and crowded out by state fiat.

The company Agora, which publishes Poland’s “paper of record” Gazeta Wyborcza has been seeing bailout capital from the state owned enterprise PZU. PZU is the national insurance company and one of the biggest corporations in Poland. As it is an insurance company and generates massive free cash flow (Warren Buffett, as unpalatable as he may be, is no idiot) it maintains an investment fund to deploy this taxpayer capital “productively.” This investment fund has been making infusions into Agora to stave off its bankruptcy and to keep Gazeta Wyborcza in print. When I speak of the methods above of media manipulation with the goal of influencing politics and society- GW is the great progenitor of all of these mechanisms in modern (post 1989) Polish media. (One could pen encyclopaedia on this subject.)

The PZU investment fund is now the largest outside equity holder in Agora with an almost 16% stake as of last quarter (and it has been steadily on the rise since reporting thresholds were breached in the last 2 years). Despite this massive taxpayer investment exposure subsidizing this dying partisan media company “we the people” have no idea what valuation was ascribed to this investment nor have “we the people” received board representation via the investment fund. This shows us how sensitive the “investment” managers were to considerations like “expected returns” and in taking their fiduciary duty seriously to oversee the discipline of the Agora C-suite.

Not only is Agora/GW getting indirect taxpayer bailouts but they are also receiving a consumption bailout as well since around 1/3 of revenues from both subscriptions and advertising are being generated from the Polish government (directly or through state owned enterprises). So the leading propagandist platform, living under the veneer of being committed to serious journalism, is getting back door and front door bailouts to stave off its impending bankruptcy (as circulation plummets due to lack of credibility and a competitive internet market offering unbiased news feeds). It is no coincidence that the founder of Agora and Editor in Chief of GW, Adam Michnik (a political activist from a long line of communists) has not only maintained strong ties to the nomenklatura but has materially shaped statist and leftist policy since 1989 and has continually been a mouthpiece and defender of these political factions.

Another manner which I think demonstrates that free expression is under assault in Poland today is the way in which those tasked with the responsibility of public institutional administration and management abuse the power of their office. They take away what is not theirs to bestow in the first place: access to state infrastructure, which belongs to the public and which is supported by the taxes paid by the citizenry. This is an act of forceful censorship and it is brazenly anti-democratic.

Another personal example may help crystallize this dynamic. Last year, the Consul General (Ewa Junczyk Ziomecka) blacklisted me from Polish Consular events at the New York consulate. As I am a Polish citizen—and have never acted in a violent, unsafe, or similarly disruptive manner—there were no formal channels to do so, but given such lax oversight, and the state’s agents’ excessive discretionary control of “the trappings of their political wealth” citizens have woefully little recourse. This is a prime reason why there is a necessity for an uncompromised free media that serves to be a respondent mechanism to such actions. The rationale behind this “blacklisting” (as gleaned off-the-record from staffers working at the Consulate) was that my political views—and the way in which I expressed those views—were not pleasing to Consul Ziomecka. To be sure, my views on her and the government under which she served were not positive and I had never hidden this. (I write for many political outlets online and in print.)

This kind of blacklisting and withholding of government services by discretionary fiat is another frontal assault on free expression. With behaviour like this de rigeur, one can only imagine what the calculus is when cultural ministries and their subsidiaries dole out public funding for publicly financed projects like movies, festivals, and other events. These processes are rife with “spoils system” and “quid pro quo” politics which creates costs unwittingly borne by the taxpayer citizen.

A final, and maybe the most egregious institutional assault on free expression in Poland today is the so-called “Electoral Silence” law. A statute exists that bans any discussion of the elections and candidates in the period leading into the election. For the 24 hours preceding the day of voting and the day of the election itself (a total of 48 hours) candidates cannot stump, pundits cannot weigh in, and even ordinary citizens cannot make public commentary with the intent to shift opinion and endorse candidacies. This law is justified with the expressed goal of giving the nation time to reflect on the choices presented without the “coercive” effect of open debate. Fines can be levied for violating this statute but with the advent of social media it is getting tougher to enforce (this is generally my chosen medium of violating this anti-free expression law). The real reasoning behind this law is to give the incumbents one last possible impact (at the proverbial 11th hour) of tipping the scales in their favour since many low information voters, if not freshly reminded of newer less familiar options, tend to vote for the incumbents whose names have been more generally and deeply internalized by the body politic. This statute is so utterly ridiculous that it has no place in any society that even purports to be a free one. The idea that debate or rhetoric can be banned during the time when it is most important to a democracy- election time- is laughable and is nothing short of completely illegitimate.

Free expression, as we have recently seen all too frequently, is under attack all over the globe. This issue affects all; developing, transitioning, and emerging societies and economies. In contemporary Poland, a nation and economy widely credited during the last two decades for emerging as a beacon of post-Soviet freedom and free enterprise, the price for “free” expression too often has been conformity to the government’s precepts with the mainstream media working hand in hand to enforce these precepts through active propaganda and subversion of truth.

A truly free and independent press needs to be fought for today as vociferously as it was under the oppressive communist regimes of yesteryear. The best way to fight in its defence—and for the fundamental right of free expression—is to never cease using this right assertively, in speech and in writings, and to not shy away from proposing ideas that may not be popular—and which may bring added levels of personal and professional risk. The only thing not to be put at risk is the moral clarity and personal integrity that comes from holding on firmly to one’s beliefs. One should never yield one’s understanding of the truth to those who would re-program it by coercion or force for their own benefit.

Free expression is truly the lifeblood of democracy. And it is worth repeating a somewhat clichéd quotation—oft attributed to both Voltaire and Jefferson: “I do not agree with what you have to say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” We all need to embrace the sentiments behind these words as this is the ultimate weapon against cronyism. For now, it remains to be seen if Poland can develop a legal system to protect free and unfettered expression, and to function in the same way that the First Amendment does in the United States. If it can, then Poland will be better, freer, and more prosperous for future generations.

Matthew Tyrmand is an investor and economist based in New York City. He is Deputy Director of OpenTheBooks, an NGO focused on bringing transparency to government spending. This article has been adapted from a speech presented at the second Round Table Mixer (RTMx) held in March 2015 in Warsaw co-hosted by the author and by Michal Lisiecki, President of Point Media Group, which owns the Wprost newsweekly.

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