By Beata Klimkiewicz
What would the news media environment look like in Poland without independent news providers? Users could taste bitterly such a (not-entirely) hypothetical situation on 10 February 2021, when most Polish news media went on strike. For those who remember communism, a sudden shrinking of the public sphere invoked a strange feeling of unpleasant dejà-vu. The number 10 seems to be quite symbolic in this context – it is Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights that protects freedom of speech and freedom of media. And indeed, the strike itself stood in defence of media freedom, despite the pro-government public service TVP framing the protest as fear of private media of losing millions in advertising revenues for the sake of the new tax planned by the government. TVP also claimed that media users do not fully understand the protest action, nor do they support it.
An unusual solidarity among media entities has been adopted, which probably shows the extent of their motivation (or desperation). Most private mainstream media groups with the support of digital natives, many of which are financed by users’ donations or crowdfunding, joined the strike. Outside the protest group stood public service TV (TVP) and radio (PR), a camp of right-wing media as well as some catholic media, in particular, Radio Maryja network. This could have been read as just another sign of deep polarisation of the Polish media environment or a divide between potential losers and beneficiaries of the new measures.
The controversial 2021 draft Law on additional revenues of the National Health Fund, the National Monument Protection Fund and establishment of a Fund for Support for Culture and National Heritage in the Media, proposes a tax which will introduce a levy on advertising revenues of a large array of media companies, including news providers in TV, radio, print as well as online media sectors. The government argues that the tax is intended to support the National Health Fund (NFZ), National Monument Protection Fund(NFOZ) and will enable them to establish a Fund for Support for Culture and National Heritage in the Media. Yet, according to estimates, 800 million of PLN that could eventually be generated by the new tax would comprise around 0.7 per cent of NFZ’s annual budget. Such a tiny portion of additional funds would not bring a qualitative change to the health fund that needs more systematic changes in order to bring noticeable and more effective results. At the same time, a newly established Fund for Support for Culture and National Heritage in the Media might function as a vehicle for funding the government-friendly media at the expense of the media offering critical watchdog journalism, thus sharpening asymmetric intervention on the already fragile media market.
Another argument widely used by the government claims that the draft law largely resonates with European efforts to tax digital service giants such as Facebook and Google and that similar measures are being implemented in such EU countries as France, Belgium, Spain and Hungary. In the case of Poland, however, the planned levy will not only apply to giant companies with global revenues whose primary modus operandi is not directed toward the production of original news, but it will apply also to smaller domestic media groups primarily focusing on journalistic content. Moreover, the law foresees different levy shares – for example, TV, radio, cinema and outdoor advertising groups with annual advertising revenues exceeding 50 million PLN – forced to pay a 10 per cent annual tax (Article 10), while companies financed from internet advertising with annual advertising revenues exceeding 5 million Euro (this would apply to Google and Facebook) will have to pay a 5 per cent tax (Article 20). Ironically, legacy press publishers with annual advertising revenues exceeding 30 million PLN will have to pay 6 per cent – thus a higher percentage of levy than the digital platforms. This shows that the hardest-hit entities by the new legal proposal would not be global digital platforms but smaller domestic legacy news providers such as Agora company (the publisher of Gazeta Wyborcza), or transnational media groups producing original news such as TVN group owned by US Discovery or Swiss-German Ringier Axel Springer (the owner of onet.pl news portal, tabloid Fakt and news weekly Newsweek).
What makes the new tax proposal a media freedom issue is not a mere intent to impose an additional tax (although this might be disputed on grounds of economic fairness, and probably constitutional provisions), but the way the tax is calculated and how it is planned to be implemented. The news media need fair structural conditions for their sustainable growth. The covid-19 pandemic unprecedently tested the economic performance of many media companies in Poland and severely weakened a number of news media groups. According to some estimates, in the first half of 2020, overall advertising revenues in Poland decreased by 15.3 per cent in comparison with the same period of the previous year. Destabilising conditions further eroded the media’s economic vulnerabilities despite news content attracting more users. Hit by advertising revenue losses, the German Verlagsgruppe Passau agreed to sell Polska Presse Group (a media company owning 20 of 24 local newspapers in Poland, 120 regional weeklies and hundreds of websites) to the state-owned oil company Orlen in December 2020. This reactivation of state ownership of the media might be a prelude to the next such takeovers of media facing economic troubles.
Yet, there is much more at stake here than a mere change of policy direction. The news media, in particular, those offering original and well-resourced content should be strengthened, not weakened, in times of great turbulence. More than ever, there is a need to preserve a sound space for an open and unrestricted debate. Thus, media need to be supported, or at least not confronted with additional burdens, in order to build greater resilience. Such resilience stems from the institutional and professional ability to accommodate various pressures, and at the same time to remain untouched by these while protecting professional autonomy and integrity.
 Beata Klimkiewicz is Jagiellonian University Professor in media and communication sciences and Jean Monnet Chair (Media Freedom, Trust and Transparency in the EU)
 Tvp.info (2021) „Media bez wyboru”. Zobacz, co o akcji sądzą internauci („Media without choice”. See what internauts think about the action), https://www.tvp.info/52232741/media-bez-wyboru-protest-mediow-co-sadza-internauci
 Draft Law revenues of the National Health Fund, the National Monument Protection Fund and establishment of a Fund for Support for Culture and National Heritage in the Media , https://www.google.com/search?biw=875&bih=403&ei=3y8qYLrzCvCHwPAP-9qMkAw&q=pdf+druk+projekt+ustawy+o+dodatkowych+przychodach+narodowego+funduszu+zdrowia&oq=pdf+druk+projekt+ustawy+o+dodatkowych+przychodach+narodowego+funduszu+zdrowia&gs_lcp=Cgdnd3Mtd2l6EANQuBlY2Chg0SxoAXAAeACAAdcBiAGVBpIBBTIuMy4xmAEAoAEBqgEHZ3dzLXdpesABAQ&sclient=gws-wiz&ved=0ahUKEwj63tzHu-vuAhXwAxAIHXstA8IQ4dUDCA0&uact=5#
 See e.g.: Stanowisko do projektu ustawy o dodatkowych przychodach Narodowego Funduszu Zdrowia…..(The statement about the draft law on additional revenues of the National Health Fund…..), https://www.gov.pl/web/finanse/stanowisko-do-projektu-ustawy-o-dodatkowych-przychodach-narodowego-funduszu-zdrowia-narodowego-funduszu-ochrony-zabytkow-oraz-utworzeniu-funduszu-wsparcia-kultury-i-dziedzictwa-narodowego-w-obszarze-mediow
 Signs.pl (2020) Badanie: Wartość rynku reklamowego w I poł. 2020 r. spadła o 15.3 per cent (Advertising revenues in the I half of 2020) decreased in 15.3 per cent, https://www.signs.pl/wartosc-rynku-reklamowego-w-i-pol.-2020-r.-spadla-o-15%2C3-proc.,388308,artykul.html