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A growing number of leaders in Eastern Europe are, quote, "dropping the democratic facade." That warning comes in a new report from Freedom House, a U.S. government-funded NGO. One country that was cited - Poland, where the ruling party has placed judges under the control of politicians. It's also been stifling independent media voices, as NPR's Rob Schmitz reports.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Journalist Mariusz Kowalewski noticed something was amiss when his editors came to him with a new assignment. They asked him to start following an outspoken critic of Poland's ruling party with a drone.
MARIUSZ KOWALEWSKI: (Through interpreter) So the idea was to send this drone over his house in order for him to notice it and feel threatened, like he was being watched. This was an intimidation method straight out of communism.
SCHMITZ: And it was coming from his editors at TVP, Poland's largest broadcaster, which oversees a vast network of public television channels and radio stations. Kowalewski says he sabotaged the plan by giving the drone operator an outdated address. But the episode taught him public television was no longer serving the public. It was serving Poland's ruling party, known as Law and Justice.
KOWALEWSKI: (Through interpreter) Instead of information, viewers now get blunt propaganda that is meant to assure them that Law and Justice is the best party to rule this country.
SCHMITZ: The right-wing populist party has distinguished itself by fighting what it sees as an infiltration of liberal European values upon its largely conservative, Catholic country. That was the backdrop for a 2016 law that put TVP, an editorially independent broadcaster, under the supervision of a new National Media Council. Lawmaker Krzysztof Czabanski heads the council.
KRZYSZTOF CZABANSKI: (Through interpreter) I know the changes we've made aren't politically popular with some in the opposition. But I say to those who don't like what we're doing, win the election next time.
SCHMITZ: After the last election, the ruling party purged the editorial leadership of TVP, replacing them with party loyalists. Czabanski says the changes are making TVP more Polish.
CZABANSKI: (Through interpreter) I'd prefer if we had Polish capital in Poland's media market regardless of the political coloring because then we can really say that what is represented is perhaps politically diverse but ultimately in Poland's interest.
SCHMITZ: The Polish government has coined a name for this - repolanization (ph). One of the country's largest newspaper chains was repolanized. The state-controlled oil refiner PKN Orlen announced it was buying Polska Press from a German media group. The purchase will put 20 of Poland's 24 regional newspapers and 120 local magazines under Orlen's control. Polish journalists are bracing themselves.
MAREK TWAROG: (Through interpreter) If I feel there is suddenly political pressure on me, I'll be forced to quit.
SCHMITZ: That's Marek Twarog, editor-in-chief of Dziennik Zachodni. It's Poland's top-selling regional newspaper, owned by Polska Press. Twarog sees the experience of Poland's public broadcaster as an omen.
TWAROG: (Through interpreter) What has happened to TVP is making all of us worry about the political impact on our paper.
SCHMITZ: What has happened is that TVP is now being used to promote the ruling party's agenda, according to Andrzej Krajewski, a former adviser to Poland's National Broadcasting Council.
ANDRZEJ KRAJEWSKI: They are propagandists. They want to convince people that they are right. Opposition is wrong. We are surrounded by enemies.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Polish).
SCHMITZ: This is a TVP broadcast from 2016 that painted the liberal mayor of Gdansk as an enemy. It was one of many that attacked his real estate dealings as well as his support for migrants and LGBT rights. In January of 2019, a young man fatally stabbed the mayor, Pawel Adamowicz.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Polish).
SCHMITZ: In the two years since the murder, a small group of protesters has gathered every evening outside TVP's Warsaw headquarters, chanting, TVP lies. And as the 7:30 news music broadcast from the studios inside, demonstrators outside play a different tune.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SCHMITZ: The nightly news theme during Poland's communist era. The man holding the megaphone says, the news was propaganda then, and it's propaganda now.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Polish).
SCHMITZ: The European Union has noticed. It's investigating Poland for violating the EU's core values.
Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Warsaw.
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