Written by: Paula Rabiega /Edited by: Conor Hiliard
Democratic countries are associated with the existence of free, independent media – it is one of the pillars ensuring the country functions the way it was supposed to. Recently however, Alexei Navalny’s case shows that even evidence of poisoning of political opponents can pass without making a bigger impact in a country, where the majority of media outlets are state-controlled. The Kremlin successfully controls the flow of information within the country and makes sure the propaganda machine gets results among Russians – according to the Levada Center, 61% of Russians heard about the poisoning of Navalny and only 17% are actively following the case. This is the goal of each authoritarian regime – to paralyse independent sources of information and ensure that the state is the only thing capable of creating a national ideology and identity. Similarly, Poland seems to be taking a page out of Putin’s playbook. The national media’s propaganda is easily comparable to the one of Poland’s eastern neighbour. The main problem at hand for the ruling party now are only the independent media who inform people of the issues, the current government would rather omit and so the strategies adopted must tame them.
Many journalists would agree that the media’s role is holding politicians accountable, not supporting them no matter what. However, this is not the approach that the current Polish government seems to agree with – Piotr Gliński, the Minister of Culture and National Heritage openly spoke about the need of state-owned companies to buy as many media outlets as possible. And so, the state-owned PKN Orlen acquired the Polska Press group in March 2021, an entity which owns almost all regional newspapers and many information websites in the country. The president of the company, Daniel Obajtek, claims it was a solely business-informed decision but it is questionable how an oil corporation could directly benefit from printing out regional newspapers.
Russia’s Gazprom actually followed an almost identical route in 1998 when they created the Gazprom Media company, which bought out regional media outlets and national newspapers. In 2000, Vladimir Gusinsky was forced to sell his entire Media Most group, including the TV station NTV, which was very critical of Vladimir Putin. The station then became a cog in Kremlin’s propaganda machine and Gazprom’s strategy for Russia’s media continued with further acquisitions and creation of their own media outlets, leaving minimal room in them for ostensible freedom of speech. This was the case with the Echo of Moscow radio station, the reach of which is completely marginal and therefore, harmless to the government.
A similar story is happening on the internet – its power has not originally been appreciated enough in Russia. However, as soon as it has, many internet services have been targeted by the government. For instance, the lenta.ru service – once one of Russia’s biggest news sources – had their management forcefully changed after the editor-in-chief Galina Timchenko didn’t allow for the materials published to be altered in order to follow the Kremlin’s direction. Along with her, over 80 journalists quit in 2014. Additionally, strict laws have been implemented regarding what is published on the internet, including the jailing of people forwarding information that has been regarded as dangerous by the government. In such a way, it can only be expected that the Polish government will follow the same route soon enough.
Another layer to this situation is revealed when one realises, the state does need to control all media in order to have influence over them. A different tool that becomes useful here is the power of advertising. By dictating where and for which price advertisements can appear, they can control the reach of many outlets. For instance, Gazprom created the Aura advertising agency and the Gazprom-Media agency, which controls where and for how much the advertisement can be placed and controls 90% of the television advertisement market. In the same vein, Polish PKN Orlen and PZU created the Sigma Bis media agency, which is trying to acquire private and public partnerships, which in turn is putting significant pressure on independent media, who are able to stay afloat mainly due to advertising strategies. It will be especially easy to dominate the market within the regional media, which Orlen recently acquired and now controls.
What would make the situation even easier for the Polish government was if they followed through on their election campaign promise of ‘repolonisation’ or ‘deconcentration’ of Polish media, which would limit foreign investments in media to maximum 25% (in Russia they have been limited to 20%). This idea is usually justified with the claim that each nation should protect its freedoms of speech, media, and national debate from foreign interference. However, the ‘repolonisation’ project, through its many iterations, has not been made possible because of Poland’s EU membership and a strong negative reaction from the United States embassy in Warsaw.
After all, the concern is not actually national security but rather the silencing of independent media. In Russia, the implementation of such laws has caused international companies to sell their outlets for significantly below market price or close them down entirely. Then, the management, as well as the journalists of such companies were changed to finally be able to almost completely control the journalism in the country. The taking over of media was supervised by the Russian National Media Group with tight personal ties to the Kremlin leadership. In the same way, many directors of seemingly independent media in Poland have strong ties to the government and often receive donations from the national budget.
All in all, taking over the independent media is a very desirable path for both the Russian and Polish governments as a way of cementing their influence in their nations. It is a complicated process directed through sometimes unobvious ways – no company is going to openly admit they’re acquiring media outlets just to strengthen the position of the current state leadership. Nonetheless, their actions are visible and should be publicly recognised as much as possible.
Kowalczyk, Mariusz. 2021. “Rosyjska Metoda Na Polskie Media.” Newsweek Polska, January 4-10.