Independent Polish media black out coverage to protest tax

Independent media outlets in Poland suspended news coverage Wednesday to protest a planned new advertising tax that they view as an attempt by the right-wing government to undermine press freedoms.

The government says the tax will raise money after state finances have been badly strained by the coronavirus pandemic.

A letter signed by 45 media companies said the tax would be extremely burdensome, noting that they already pay many taxes, and said it could push some to collapse.

“We strongly oppose the use of the epidemic as an excuse to introduce another new, exceptionally heavy burden on the media,” they wrote.

The US threw its support behind the media companies, with Chargé d’Affaires Bix Aliu calling free media “a cornerstone of democracy” in a tweet and saying “the United States will always defend media independence.”

Gazeta Wyborcza, the country’s leading newspaper and a liberal critic of the populist government, called the advertising tax “a powerful blow to free media.” In place of the usual news items on its webpage was a black screen and a warning that if the tax is passed, it could lead readers to one day lose access to independent news.

TVN, owned by the U.S. company Discovery, also joined the protest, which is to last 24 hours. Its all-news station TVN24 only showed a black screen and the words: “Your favorite programming was supposed to be here.”

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki cast the planned tax an effort to level out the playing field between small and big companies and force giants like Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon to contribute their fair share in markets.

The tax is still being worked on in parliament but Morawiecki’s ruling conservative party, Law and Justice, has the majority needed to pass it.

“This is a fair step towards leveling the playing field for domestic players in various industries compared to big foreign players,” Morawiecki said.

Polish newspapers have already faced massive financial pressure in past years amid the digital revolution and have faced new setbacks due to the pandemic.

Boguslaw Chrabota, editor of the respected Rzeczpospolita daily, wondered in an editorial if the tax is “systemic revenge” against media for acting as watchdog on the authorities. Unlike many other outlets, Rzeczpospolita made some news coverage available Wednesday.

The tax proposal comes amid an erosion of media independence in Poland, which has been following a path taken by Hungary under autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

The European Union has for years expressed concerns about what it views as an erosion of democracy in Poland and Hungary, two countries once admired as models of democratic transition from authoritarian communism.

On Tuesday, a Hungarian court issued a ruling that will force one of Hungary’s last remaining independent radio stations, Klubradio, off the airwaves and limited to online broadcasts.

In December, Poland’s state-run oil company, PKN Orlen, announced it was buying Polska Press, a formerly German-owned private media group that controls a wide swath of daily and weekly newspapers in Poland. Government critics called it a huge setback for media freedom since it effectively meant the government took control of an important publisher of independent news.

Meanwhile, the Polish government generously funds public media, which act as a government mouthpiece, even increasing their budget to over $500 million ahead of a presidential election last year that the ruling party-backed incumbent ended up winning.

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