Following the storming of the Capitol building in Washington, Twitter, followed by other social media outlets, took the decision to suspend Donald Trump’s accounts, sparking an international debate regarding freedom of speech. The Polish government gave its contribution to this debate in the form of its proposed social media ‘free speech’ law. The law would force social media platforms to restore deleted content that does not violate Polish law. Platforms that fail to restore deleted content when requested could pay a fine of up to 50 million zlotys (around £9.8m or $13.4m). The law would also sanction the creation of a Freedom of Speech Council that would judge whether posts and accounts have been rightfully removed or banned.
The government’s newly-discovered commitment to ‘free speech’ comes as somewhat of a surprise, given their record of suppression and authoritarianism. This has led to an increasingly dangerous situation in the country, with independent media facing continuous state-sponsored attacks on any views that are deemed to be in opposition to the government. In this context, any attempt by the state to regulate social media, including this so-called ‘free speech’ law, should be viewed with great suspicion. Frankly, the politicians bringing this law forward seek to challenge Twitter and Facebook, not out of a deep care for free speech, but rather a desire to keep misinformation and hate speech going unchallenged.
Government hypocrisy and selective protections
Free speech is indeed under attack in Poland, but it is the right-wing government that has been the main perpetrator. State corporations have been pushing the government’s right-wing agenda for years. In a perfect example of Orwellian doublespeak, the state media corporation, TVP, has positioned itself as a protecter of free speech, when in reality it gives Polish viewers an appalling lack of pluralism in its anchorpeople, ‘experts’ and guest speakers.
In December, PKN Orlen, one of Poland’s largest companies, acquired Polska Press, the publisher of twenty leading local newspapers. Orlen is a state-controlled oil refiner and owner of several petrol stations in Poland. The company now owns Polska Press, its own publishing house and a kiosk chain. With such a level of power over the country’s media, the ruling PiS party’s claims that it seeks to protect freedom of speech in Poland is absurd. What they are truly seeking to protect is their version of the truth as the only one available to the Polish people.
It is clear that the government’s efforts at protecting free speech have been one-sided. We have already mentioned TVP, the state’s main propaganda network. However, it is not just the printed press over which PiS has a tight grip. A similar fate has befallen other state media outlets including the popular Trójka radio station. In May, the station removed chart-topping ‘Your Pain is Better than Mine’, written by veteran musician, Kazik. Why? The song was seen to be critical of PiS chairman, Jarosław Kaczyński.
The state’s insidious control over all possible expressions of opposing views continues. In November 2020, a 14 year-old was threatened with arrest after sharing a post on Facebook in support of the anti-government and pro-abortion rights Women’s Strike. University students continue to be threatened with removal from classes and even failure as a result of their open support for the nationwide protests. In one Kraków high school, students were told to remove the popular lightning symbol of the Women’s Strike from their Facebook profile pictures or risk being removed from class.
At the same time, activist Małgorzata Szutowicz, known as Margot, was arrested in August for damaging a truck promoting anti-LGBT propaganda. In January, a court dismissed a case against pro-life activist Kaja Godek, who referred to LGBT people as “perverts”. Free speech in Poland seems to be protected only when the opinions expressed – often disturbing – are in line with the views held by those in power. Meanwhile dissenting views are open to state-sponsored attack with little or no consequence.
The suspension of Trump’s social media accounts has been used by supporters of right wing demagoguery as part of their claim that conservative views are in some way silenced. This is a false argument: Trump’s accounts were removed after he incited an insurrection, not for his conservatism. Now, in Poland, this same untruth is being mobilised by a ruling party whose commitment to free speech has been shaky to say the least.
The idea that right-wing views are being persecuted is especially popular in Poland, with no apparent justification. Poland has the most conservative laws on LGBT and abortion rights in the EU. It has had a right-wing government since at least 2015, and arguably since 2005 (the 2007-2014 government was led by Donald Tusk, currently the leader of the conservative EPP). In the 2020 presidential election, out of eleven candidates, only two could claim any left-wing credentials; Robert Biedroń and Waldemar Witkowski, who received a combined vote share of 2.36%.
Authoritarian wars against ‘political correctness’
Leading PiS figures have been vocal in their criticism of what they refer to as ‘political correctness’, which they claim is being used to limit conservatives’ freedom of speech. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki recently made the following statement:
“International corporations have started watching over political correctness in whatever way they want and fighting those who oppose it.”
The Prime Minister’s statement refers to recent attempts by social media companies, including Facebook and Twitter, to fight against misinformation and hate speech on their platforms. Politicians of the right-wing PiS party, known to employ baseless fearmongering as a tactic in political debate, can be expected to oppose such attempts. Informational chaos favours one side – their side – of the political discussion and enables their hold on power.
To this end, we may ask ourselves: why would Zbigniew Ziobro, the Polish Justice Minister and politician proposing the new ‘free speech’ law, be concerned with Twitter’s cracking down on misinformation and incitements of violence? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that rising right-wing politicians of Mr. Ziobro’s calibre have won power by employing both these tactics effectively.
Ziobro waded into the Right’s frenzy over ‘political-correctness’, when he said: ‘Often, the victims of ideological censorship are also representatives of various groups operating in Poland, whose content is removed or blocked just because they express views and refer to values that are unacceptable’. Yet again, this statement illustrates the ideology espoused by Ziobro, and other like him. It is the belief that people – ‘their people’ – should be able to get away with saying things which are unacceptable, dangerous and almost always inaccurate. Why? All for the sake of power. The populist avenue to political control is paved with controversial statements uttered with smiles. It is too-often forgotten that the likes of Ziobro and his far-right party, with their access to the power of state media, are the chief spreaders of misinformation in the country.
The proposed new law is deeply worrying given the context of the Polish government’s incessant attacks on media pluralism. Politicised state media, buying out independent outlets, censorship, police arrests of activists – if we add to this the newly-proposed power to regulate internet content, we have a recipe for an authoritarian dystopia. The proponents of the proposed bill say that it does not give any organ the power to remove content, only to restore content. This may be true in isolation, but the government’s strategy is twofold: increase the outreach of its rhetoric and simultaneously limit that of the opposition’s. We see left-wing activists arrested on phoney charges of vandalism, yet trucks with loudspeakers proclaiming links between homosexuality and paedophilia are within the confines of the very sort of ‘free speech’ the new law seeks to protect.
The proposed new law is part of PiS and its allies’ proclaimed fight against the ills of ‘political correctness’. Without entering into a convoluted debate over political correctness, we can see that this move, as most policies taken by this government, is extremely cynical. Under the cover of protecting freedom of expression the proponents of this law want to eliminate any obstacles to the spread of falsehoods, half-truths and misrepresentations, that keeps them in power.
On Wednesday Polish independent media outlets suspended reporting for a day in protest of a proposed tax on ad revenue. A similar tax in Hungary led most independent media outlets into bankruptcy or a change of ownership. Soon, Poles might face a situation where mainstream independent media outlets are all but gone while the internet, the only recourse apart from foreign news reporting, is flooded with conspiracy theories, half-truths and other forms of misinformation.