Polish media blackout flags up press freedom fears over tax plan

Hungary adds to EU concerns as independent radio station is ordered off air

Daily newspapers headlines with a special message ‘Media without choice’ at one of the kiosks in the centre of Warsaw, Poland. Photograph: Albert Zawada/EPA

Daily newspapers headlines with a special message ‘Media without choice’ at one of the kiosks in the centre of Warsaw, Poland. Photograph: Albert Zawada/EPA

 

Several major Polish news outlets have replaced normal coverage with black screens and front pages, in protest at plans for a new tax that they say would stifle independent media and weaken scrutiny of the country’s nationalist government.

The European Union noted Wednesday’s protest in Poland and also expressed concern over media freedom in Hungary, where allies of populist prime minister Viktor Orban defended a decision to take a leading independent radio station off air.

Dozens of privately-owned media firms operating in Poland signed an open letter opposing plans for a tax on advertising revenue, which the government says will provide funds for healthcare, culture and other sectors badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The advertising tax is a powerful blow against free media,” the wyborcza.pl news website wrote, under a black banner reading “Media without choice”.

“Most [independent media] base their existence on advertising revenue. In this way the authorities will thwart costly investigations, eliminate laborious fact checking and stifle criticism.”

Financial hardship

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party often lashes out at independent media that are critical of its policies, while enjoying flattering coverage from public broadcasters and pro-government media that are awash with state advertising.

The government insists the tax will make international giants like Google and Facebook pay more into Polish coffers, but it will also strike many of the country’s smaller media firms at a time of financial hardship caused by the pandemic.

“We have seen the black screens,” said European Commission spokesman Christian Wigand. “We expect member states to ensure that their fiscal or other policies will not affect the duty of ensuring a free, independent and diverse media ecosystem.”

The EU has clashed repeatedly with Poland and Hungary over rule-of-law issues, and their populist governments reject allegations of impinging on media and judicial independence and accuse Brussels of meddling in their domestic affairs.

Infringements

Hungary’s top independent radio station, Klubradio, is expected to go off air and move online on Sunday after losing an appeal to keep its broadcasting licence.

The national media council – whose members were appointed by Mr Orban’s ruling Fidesz party – said it could not legally have found otherwise after Klubradio admitted twice being late in filing mandatory reports to the authorities.

The station, which has been a vocal critic of Mr Orban, argued that other broadcasters had been allowed to keep their licences after similar infringements.

“We’ve expressed our concerns about media freedom and pluralism in Hungary . . . The case of Klubradio only aggravates these concerns,” said Mr Wigand.

Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said questions of politics and press freedom played no part in the Klubradio case, insisting that “the radio station’s own management is to blame for its demise by flagrantly disregarding broadcasting regulations and falling afoul of the court.”