Media vs. Democracy: The Case of Poland
With New Year fireworks, Western media opened a frontal attack on the new Polish government formed after a landslide election victory by the Law and Justice Party (PIS). In 2015, the PIS won both presidential and parliamentary elections, and for the first time since WWII, removed entrenched post-communist forces from power in Poland. To the surprise of many Polish people, American media reacted with anger to this development, announcing that in Poland a radical right-wing government was formed and overnight introduced a dictatorship. Poland’s so-called “disturbing tilt to the right” was of grave concern to the Western media, which had been dutifully supporting the previous post-communist government of the Civic Platform (“PO”) and PSL coalition. Protests against “violation of democracy” and “Putinization of Poland” reverberated across the West.
The primary reason for sounding this alarm was the alleged coup d’état perpetrated on the Constitutional Court by the new government of Prime Minister Szydlo. The Western media were outraged that the PIS government challenged the appointment of five judges to the Constitutional Court hastily pushed through the parliament by the previous PO/PSL coalition. They failed to report, however, that the constitutional crisis in Poland resulted from the illegal attempt of the PO/PSL coalition to force its 14 judges to the 15-member Constitutional Court in the final days of the parliament term. The subsequent changes introduced by the winning PIS resulted in PO preserving the court majority 9 to 6.
A similar constitutional crisis occurred almost simultaneously in Venezuela. The party in power that was about to lose elections stacked the Supreme Court with their own appointments just before elections. The difference in reporting on these two similar cases is astonishing. The Venezuelan case received a detailed coverage. All relevant facts were provided and arguments of both sides were clearly presented. No one called the struggle over the Supreme Court in Venezuela as a coup d’état. Instead, constitutional law experts provided arguments for both sides of the conflict. No one raised concerns about “putinization” of Venezuela. Instead, reasonable concerns about the potential institutional paralysis were presented.
With respect to Poland, Western media disregarded the obligation to provide diverse viewpoints and responsible content. Paradoxically, this serious failure to provide balanced reporting took place while the media were accusing the new Polish government of violating freedom of speech and freedom of press.
During PO/PSL coalition rule between 2008 and 2015, the fundamental tenets of freedom of press were completely eliminated from the Polish media. A massive wave of firings in all Polish media took place in 2010, in the aftermath of the crash of Polish Air Force One in Smolensk, Russia. At the time, nearly all independently thinking journalists were removed from the mainstream media without a single complaint from the Western watchdogs of free speech and human rights. The publisher of a leading daily, Rzeczpospolita, was almost destroyed by the PO/PSL government for revealing that samples from the Smolensk crash site tested positive for explosives.
Accordingly, the new government of Prime Minister Szydło undertook actions to introduce pluralism of opinions and objectivity of reporting in the Polish media. The PIS government wants to restore a sense of public mission in the media, and assure the rights to free speech to those who were effectively silenced and marginalized by the PO/PSL regime. This response was not reported however, in the Western media.
Civic Platform (PO) vs. Law and Justice (PIS)
The gap between Western myths and the reality of contemporary Poland is alarming. To most Americans, Lech Walesa remains a symbol of victory over communism. Thus far, no Western historian has been willing to take on the subject of what the archives reveal about Lech Walesa. But in Poland everybody knows that Walesa was a communist collaborator used by the Jaruzelski regime to assure communist forces in Poland a smooth transformation into free marketeers with all their powers and privileges intact. The communist leaders, some of them criminals with blood on their hands, coerced the opportunistic arm of the Solidarity Movement into post-1989 collaboration. They co-opted Walesa’s people from the Solidarity Movement, and eliminated those who objected to the deal. The power-sharing arrangement with those Solidarity leaders who were willing to legitimize the fake transfer of power effectively assured the communist regime full impunity and protection of their privileges after 1989, and subsequent return to power.
There were two attempts by anti-communist forces of the Solidarity Movement to regain power after 1989. The first one was the formation of the government of Jan Olszewski, which was quickly overthrown in June of 1992 by the post-communist alliance led by Walesa. The second attempt brought to power twin brothers Lech and Jarosław Kaczynski in 2005. The government of Jarosław Kaczyński was formed in 2006 but was swiftly destroyed by an aggressive media campaign in 2007. His brother Lech Kaczynski won the presidential elections in 2005 and his 5-year term as President of Poland was to end in the fall of 2010.
Between 2007 and 2010, the office of prime minister was in the hands of Donald Tusk and a post-communist alliance led by PO, while the office of president was in the hands of Lech Kaczynski and PIS, rooted in the anti-communist tradition of the Solidarity Movement. This power split into former communists and their Solidarity allies from PO on one hand, and anti-communist Solidarity loyalists from PIS on the other hand brought dramatic tension into the power structure in Poland. The Tusk government tightly controlled most of government institutions, finances, and the media, actively opposing any actions taken by President Lech Kaczynski. While complaining about President Kaczynski’s interference into governing, Bronislaw Komorowski, then Speaker of the House supported by Tusk and PO, stated in April 2009 that “the President will fly somewhere and everything will change.”
Indeed, an important anniversary for Poland was quickly approaching. It was the 70th anniversary of Stalin’s order of March 5, 1940 to exterminate 25,700 Polish nationals. An official joint commemorative ceremony was planned for April 10, 2010 in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk.
At the beginning of 2010, the office of Prime Minister Tusk unexpectedly announced that Tusk would travel to Katyn on April 7, 2010. Russian Prime Minister Putin would join him there. This announcement was contrary to the earlier agreement that the Katyn Commemoration would be organized jointly by President Kaczynski and Prime Minister Tusk on April 10, 2010. Thus, as a result of Tusk arrangements with Putin, instead of one, there were two official ceremonies scheduled for the Katyn commemoration: the first one on April 7, 2010, organized by Minister Arabski from Tusk’s office involving the participation of Tusk, his PO governing coalition, and Russian Prime Minister Putin, and the second one on April 10, 2010, also coordinated by Minister Arabski with the participation of President Lech Kaczynski, mostly PIS representatives, and representatives of the Polish Armed Forces.
The year 2009 leading up to April 10, 2010 was marked by an unprecedented media onslaught on President Lech Kaczynski. He was attacked and ridiculed for his every move and every word. His every public appearance was used to discredit him in the eyes of the public. All the mainstream media were engaged in the massive assault on President Lech Kaczynski. Looking back, the statement of a Russian FSB agent Alexander Litwinienko made just before his untimely death that the public must be adequately prepared for a political assassination was prophetic.
On the morning of April 10, 2010, President Lech Kaczynski, the entire Central Command of the Polish Armed Forces, and representatives of the patriotic elite of Polish society evaporated in the crash of the Polish Air Force One in Smolensk, Russia. Poland froze. Top Polish generals most dedicated to NATO integration were killed in Smolensk. Anna Walentynowicz, the founding mother and true hero of the Solidarity Movement was also lost in Smolensk. Six years later her body remains unidentified. By the decision of Prime Minister Tusk, full control over the Smolensk investigation and all the evidence, including autopsy and identification of the bodies, was left in Russian hands, and the case is yet to be properly investigated. In the aftermath of Smolensk, the PO/PSL coalition effectively solidified total control over the media in order to convince the public that late President Kaczynski, who “forced the pilot to land at all cost,” was responsible for the crash.
In June 2010, a prominent PO politician encouraged his followers to "shoot Jaroslaw Kaczynski and put his skin on sale in Europe." The media were delighted with this MP, calling him a model modern citizen. "Slaughter the rest of the Law and Justice (PiS) pack!" -- urged Minister of Foreign Affairs Radoslaw Sikorski. Soon thereafter, a citizen named Richard Cyba, inspired by such encouragement, went to look for a living PiS MP -- to kill him. He had to "settle” for a PiS councilman from Lodz: he killed Marek Rosiak… The media hardly reported this assassination.
Prof. Krzysztof Szczerski, who serves as secretary of state in the office of President Andrzej Duda, recently described the Smolensk tragedy as follows: “One day, practically in a split of a moment, the key government positions of the Polish State became vacant, the positions, which the PO parliamentary majority would never have a chance to fill under normal circumstances. The people in power from the previous PO-PSL government, who had to give up power as a result of this year's elections, were great beneficiaries of the Smolensk tragedy. As a result of the Smolensk crash, regular terms of office for key government positions have been ruined, including the Central Command of the Armed Forces, Chairman of Central Bank, Human Rights Ombudsman and, above all, the President of Poland. All of the sudden, an unprecedented monopoly of power was created, entirely outside of any normal mechanisms of democratic process. The PO/PSL coalition swiftly grabbed all the vacant positions. These posts could have been shortened only by sudden death or personal resignation.”
Prof. Szczerski further observed that for the past five years, Poland has been dealing with a situation that is a direct consequence of the Smolensk disaster. The unprecedented concentration of power resulted in the exclusion of the majority of people while a few received hefty rewards.
On its Head
Under PO/PSL rule, the traditional role of the media was redefined. Reporting of facts and providing diverse points of view was abandoned. Providing half-truths was not sufficient either. The most common tool used by the PO/PSL media was the practice of discrediting those who disagreed with them. But this tool was not sufficient in the post-Smolensk landscape either. Therefore, a more radical method of creating counter-fact narratives was widely used. A system of constructing counter-facts was developed to counter the narrative and ideals of the opposition. For example, those who dared to challenge the official version of the Smolensk crash were brutally discredited as conspiracy theorists, some key opponents committed so-called suicides. Public discourse became one gigantic manipulation. Political marketing experts shaped messages according to the needs of the ruling coalition controlled by former communist special agents affiliated with intelligences services.
Thus under PO/PSL rule, no constraints existed in shaping public perception according to the needs of former communists. Consequently, communist victims were turned into oppressors, Solidarity real heroes became renegades, and efforts to demand accountability for communist crimes were discredited as ill motivated. Any attempts to eliminate former Soviet agents from the government structures were branded as cesspool, and any attempts to pursue de-communization of public life were labelled as discrimination and violation of human rights. PIS supporters were treated as inferiors, were openly discriminated against, and spit on as “catholic backward reactionaries.” This rhetoric was taken directly from Stalinist propaganda against those who fought during the war against Hitler and Stalin for an independent Poland, and were murdered after the war by Moscow communists who took power in Poland.
The unfolding attack on the Polish democratically elected government of Prime Minister Szydlo is led by the Committee in Defense of Democracy (KOD). PO/PSL leaders began planning KOD operations against the incoming PIS government already in May 2015. The first well-organized KOD protests against the PIS government were launched in January 2016. One commentator observed that watching these post-communists from KOD protesting against violations of democracy in Poland is like watching the Gestapo and SS protesting against anti-Semitism.
KOD is especially effective in the West. Recently, an article appeared in Poland that the 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw is allegedly threatened because President Obama does not want to come to Warsaw due to violations of democracy. Next, a Polish journalist asked a U.S. spokesman at a State Department news conference whether this news was true. It is false, the response was. Most likely, the response was not important because the objective was to spread this message throughout the world by simply asking the question.