Media blackout in Poland to protest new ad tax

Warsaw (AFP) –


Poland's commercial TV and radio networks went off air on Wednesday and newspapers blacked out their front pages in protest against a proposed tax that critics say will crush independent media.

Dozens of news outlets took part in the unprecedented 24-hour blackout, accusing the government of designing a tax that would limit freedom of expression and media pluralism.

"This is where your favourite programme was supposed to be," read a message in white letters on a black background on the TVN24 news channel, which is owned by the US group Discovery.

The front pages of national newspapers, including the most widely read dailies Fakt and Gazeta Wyborcza, read simply: "Media Without Choice".

A statement on Gazeta Wyborcza's home page said: "You should be able to see our content on this page. If the government's plans are successful, maybe one day you will no longer see it for real".

- 'No freedom' -

Radio stations also suspended service, with Radio ZET informing its listeners that the tax would mean "liquidation for some media businesses".

"There is no free country without independent media. There is no freedom without freedom of choice," the radio station said on its website.

Expected to take effect later this year, the new tax imposes a levy on advertising revenues of television and radio broadcasters, print outlets and internet media companies.

State-owned broadcaster TVP, which has become a mouthpiece for Poland's populist right-wing government, did not join in the protest.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said earlier that the move is part of Europe-wide efforts to tax global tech giants like Google or Facebook but independent media say they would be hit too.

Morawiecki has called it a "solidarity fee" that will "create better conditions for the development of free media" and help fund healthcare and the culture sector.

- 'Cornerstone of democracy' -

Government spokesman Piotr Muller said the tax would only target large media companies and the rate would be between 2 and 15 percent of advertising revenue, depending on the company's overall revenues and the type of advertising.

Muller said the tax would also affect public television and dismissed the protest saying that "everyone would like not to pay taxes".

The finance ministry struck a more conciliatory tone, telling the Polish news agency PAP that it was open to holding talks with media outlets to come up with a solution acceptable to all.

Since coming to power in 2015, the Law and Justice (PiS) party has taken control of public media and has underlined the need to "re-polonise" the media landscape.

In December, state-owned oil giant PKN Orlen bought the newspaper group Polska Press from the German company Verlagsgruppe Passau.

Poland's anti-monopoly office also turned down a request for a merger between Agora media group and Radio ZET -- a refusal seen as political by commentators.

The tax comes as many media companies struggle with shrinking advertising income and a loss of revenue because of the pandemic.

"There has never been a protest on this scale in the history of Polish media," said Boguslaw Chrabota, editor of the Rzeczpospolita daily.

Chrabota wrote that the draft regulation was "repressive for free media", warning of "a crisis that is slowly threatening our existence".

There was international criticism too.

The US charge d'affaires in Warsaw Bix Aliu tweeted: "A free media is the cornerstone of democracy. The United States will always defend the independence of the media".

Global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) accused the PiS of using the "#COVID19 context as an opportunity to stifle the media."

In its 2020 world report on press freedom, RSF found that "partisan discourse and hate speech are still the rule within (Poland's) state-owned media, which have been transformed into government propaganda mouthpieces."