Polish media groups halt news coverage in protest of advertising tax

Private media groups in Poland suspended their news coverage on Wednesday in a 24-hour protest against a proposed tax on advertising that they fear would undermine independent journalism.

Channels run by the two largest independent TV stations, TVN and Polsat, broadcast black screens with the message “This is where your favorite show should be”.

Meanwhile, several private radio stations, including TOK FM and Radio Zet, replaced normal programs with a message on a loop, accusing the government of “destroying independent media.”

“We are protesting so we can convince you what Poland will look like without independent media,” the message went to listeners. “We apologize to you, our listeners and business partners for changing today’s schedule, but we have no choice.”

Poland’s Conservative-Nationalist government says the proposed tax on advertising revenue – which is under consultation and will range from 2 to 15 percent depending on the size of the advertising revenue, the type of media and the product advertised – will help support the health care system that has been affected by coronavirus pandemic.

The government expects the plan to raise 800 million zlotys ($ 217 million) a year. Draft legislation predicts that 50 percent will go to the Public Health Fund, 35 percent to a new state-controlled fund to support “culture and national heritage in the media sphere” and 15 percent to a fund to protect monuments.

“This is a solidarity payment that applies in many EU countries,” Piotr Muller, a government spokesman, told state broadcaster TVP, which continued to broadcast as usual. Asked about the protest, he said it was not surprising that “everyone wants to avoid taxes”.

However, private media groups are seeing the proposals – which come two months after the state-controlled oil refinery Orlen bought 20 of Poland’s 24 regional newspapers in an agreement that raised concerns about journalistic freedoms – as part of a broader deterioration of the media environment.

Since the ruling Party of Law and Justice came to power in 2015, Poland has fallen from 18th to 62nd place in the World Press Freedom Index, leaving it under Niger and Armenia.

In an open letter to the government, 45 media organizations labeled the proposals as “extortion” and warned that the tax could lead to “weakening or even liquidation” of some Polish media companies.

They added that the plans would limit their ability to produce quality and local content and “deepen the unequal treatment of groups active in the Polish media market”, describing the “asymmetrical” impact of the proposals on various media groups as “scandalous” .

Boguslaw Chrabota, editor of Rzeczpospolita, a centrist daily, said in a blistering op-ed that the proposed tax had left media groups “rubbing our eyes in amazement”.

Is this really a good time to further tax the media? Is this scary short-sightedness? Or maybe something else? Systemic revenge for the fact that we are performing our constitutionally guaranteed role of keeping an eye on the public authorities? Is that why there is a desire to destroy us? ” he wrote.

The Polish proposals also attracted the attention of the EU and the US.

Christian Wigand, a spokesman for the European Commission, told a news conference that the Commission was aware of the proposals and expected EU states to ensure that “fiscal policy or other policies do not affect their duty to ensure a free, independent and diverse media ecosystem “.

Meanwhile, Bix Aliu, Chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy in Warsaw, said on Twitter that “free media is a cornerstone of democracy”. “The United States will always defend media independence,” he wrote.

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