There’s so much news to give a damn about these days, from anti-vaxers spreading deadly misinformation to a new Taliban “government” trying to reclassify women as a lemur subspecies. Which makes me think: Why write about Poland? Come to think of it, I haven’t seen Poland in the headlines for a good long time.
Then came the Aug. 26 Politico piece by David Ensor, a former ABC News correspondent who reported from Warsaw from 1982-’90. The headline: “Poland Is Moving to Shut Off Independent News. What Will Biden Do?”
Wait a minute. Isn’t this the same former Soviet Union satellite that launched the Solidarity trade union? Where a shipyard electrician named Lech Walesa became the first democratically elected president in more than 60 years? The same Poland whose rise to democracy sped the fall of authoritarian communism in the eastern bloc?
Yup. But it’s hard to imagine what Walesa, who turns 78 on Sept. 23, must think of his nation now. Last month, Poland’s lower house of parliament voted to support a measure that would force foreign owners of news broadcasting stations to sell a majority interest to Polish investors.
That might sound ho-hum until you consider that this proposal really has but one purpose: to seize control of TVN24, an American-owned station there. As Ensor writes:
TVN24 is the last channel that still reports with objectivity and balance in a media landscape increasingly slanted toward Poland’s right-wing populist government.
Former Soviet Union states, unified in press mistrust
Freedom of the press is very much at stake–not just in Poland, but by way of domino effect throughout the former Soviet republics. In at least three nations–four if you count Russia–despots longing for the good old days of iron-fisted rule are working to squash voices of dissent and media contrarianism like water bugs.
Ensor points out that Poland’s nationalist deputy prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is the nation’s actual leader behind the curtain (iron or otherwise). And because his political party has a narrow grip in Poland’s parliament, the idea of clamping down on press freedom suddenly sounds tasty.
Here, Kaczynski is styling himself after Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, an increasingly authoritarian leader. And as long as we’re talking former Soviet nations on a dictatorship nostalgia trip, let’s not forget Belarus and Aleksandr Lukashenko. He’s turned jailing journalists into bloodsport, his military brazenly skyjacking a Ryanair jet carrying a dissident journalist, 26-year-old Roman Protasevich.
No wonder Lukashenko, who once served in the Soviet Army, is making his bed with Russian president-for-life Vladimir Putin. The New York Times reported Thursday that after six meetings in less than a year, Belarus and Russia are inching closer than ever to a “full-blown merger.”
As much as I’m a political junkie, I want to talk about what this means for the media. And it cannot be good. Ensor contends that what’s going on with Polish press freedom is a test for President Joe Biden. But judging by the world’s tepid response to the Protasevich travesty, it’s hard to imagine anything of substance happening to block this.
Biden can talk all he wants about cutting off NATO support and blah blah blah: Putin would gladly welcome Poland into his fold with open arms. And there go two former Soviet states once supportive, or at least tolerant, of a liberated media.
A page from Trump’s playbook
Not that it would’ve been better under the last occupant of the White House. He ignored the Saudi Arabian murder of Washington Post communist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi in October 2018, and coined a phrase to make every dictator tap dance with glee: “The press is the enemy of the people.”
Because Donald Trump–another right-wing authoritarian leader–kept hammering home those lines, foreign strongmen felt empowered to act with impunity in their treatment of the media. If the president of the world’s most powerful democracy doesn’t back a free press, why should they? You don’t actually think Kaczynski and Lukashenko weren’t taking notes when Trump railed against the press with hostility?
The way Ensor sees it, the proposal that in essence calls for the gutting of TVN24 looks like it will become law. If it does then I’m sorry, not Biden, NATO or anyone else can stop it from taking hold. Trump will ignore it or, if anything, I could see him applauding it. If it makes Biden look bad then who cares what it means for the Fourth Estate? Besides the press IS the enemy of the people! Yah, comrade?
Because the media’s attention span is so short and prone to chasing ambulances and downed jets, I have to wonder whether if even it will largely overlook what’s to become of their news-gathering brothers and sisters in Poland. So what should we do? What can any of us do?
Today Poland, tomorrow the free world?
It may not sound like much, but journalists do bear witness. They write the first drafts of history. Poland’s predicament need not land on page B-18 of the Saturday paper. It can instead serve as a cautionary tale about what happens when once seemingly impregnable fortresses of democracy turn into a sanctuary for miscreants who would control the message.
It happened in Belarus. It’s happening in Poland. And with the shaming of respected media outlets by our last fearless leader, and the Soviet-style propaganda offered by others, it could certainly happen here.