Rzeczpospolita editor: EU should apply ‘permanent pressure’ on freedom of expression rights in Poland

Rzeczpospolita Editor-in-Chief Bogusław Chrabota [Tvrzeczpospolita/ YouTube]

More than 80% of Polish citizens support the EU so European institutions can afford to pay attention to freedom of expression and media laws in Poland, Bogusław Chrabota said in interview with euractiv.com.

Bogusław Chrabota is editor-in-chief at Polish daily Rzeczpospolita.

In a #Media4EU interview with EURACTIV founder Christophe Leclercq, he talked about the problems faced by traditional media in Poland in the transition from print to web and the country’s relationship with European politics.

Have you observed in Poland a parallel rise of social media and populism, like in other countries with Brexit and the Trump election?

Yes, of course! we have written about it for a long time, and I consider social media as the main culprit. They try to be a substitute to professional journalism, offering something that called “social journalism”, which has no guarantee of professional standards.

We are also losing some readers because of the transfer of some of our content to social media, especially to Facebook. If that happened in the right way, directing traffic from social media to our pages, that would be okay. But I have a feeling that too often people don’t buy our newspaper and instead chose to have only partial access to the content distributed by social media.

I find this really dangerous, also because of the hate that grows in the public debate. It’s not a feeling, it’s basically proved that such a vision of the word distributed by social media was a key factor for both Brexit and Trump.

In the case of the UK and of the US, no infringement of press freedom has been perceived, at least at this stage. Is this different in Poland? Do you feel any press freedom issues at Rzeczpospolita?

We have a formal and material guarantee of freedom of speech in this country, and I don’t have the feeling that there are any dangers to our operations.

However, I’m just talking about private media. Public media companies are 100% controlled by the governing powers and they are very much engaged in the political fight in Poland to support in government against the opposition.

The state has almost no tool to control the free media, which is 90% of the media sphere in Poland, except for one. We previously had access to financing from public companies, including public events and commercials.

Overall the public sector does not play a dominant role, but it was about 20% of our revenues. Just after the change of government last year we got cut off. For us, this meant that we needed to renew our business model and find new revenue sources, but a number of publications suffered very much because of these changes.

I have also interviewed your colleague Roman Imielski from Gazeta Wyborcza. He made the same observations about public sector advertising, but the problem sounded much more dramatic in the case of Gazeta Wyborcza.

That is because Gazeta Wyborcza is on a barricade.

He does see this as a curtailing of press freedom, but you don’t, right?

it’s not a direct injury for us, yes. The problem is that they lost maybe 50 or 60% of their income, while in our case we also lost a lot of but we have another business model so it’s better for us.

How often do you cover European issues? These include both policy matters in Brussels, but also content describing the situation in other countries.

We are very much focused on economics, because our benchmark is the Financial Times (FT). So we are a business-oriented newspaper with up-market targets.

Out of a hundred articles on Rzeczpospolita, what proportion do you think is about European news?

It is probably about 30%. I cannot tell you the precise statistic, but we have a permanent correspondent in Brussels and cover EU issues every day.

Would you say that it is increasing further? or is it stable now?

It’s stable. Of course, we focus on domestic regulations first but we are in a common Europe, so everything national becomes federal. That’s why a lot of comments and opinion pieces touch on European matters. So I can honestly say that up to 30% of our content is related to European matters.

Other large national media organisations are members of content exchange agreements. This is the case for Gazeta Wyborcza with Le Monde, Süddeutsche Zeitung, etc. There are other networks but so far I have not identified if Rzeczpospolita is exchanging content with partners. Is this the case?

That’s true, we are not in such an exchange agreement. We have some contracts in progress with the Financial Times, but we are not so much related to European media like Gazeta Wyborcza is.

When you say you have some contract in progress, do you mean that you intend to exchange more in the future?

Yes, we want to be closer to European partners, but that’s a challenge for the new year. We are currently in a change that everyone has already been through in the past years. We are just now in the middle of a process of convergence, transforming from print to a big content hub. So that’s the number one matter today.

Regarding governmental pressure on the press, should something be done about it? Or is it counterproductive to have interference from outside?

What we need is that Brussels exercises a permanent pressure on the guarantees of freedom of the media and of expression in this country. If the European institutions don’t pay attention I think that the governing power will be much more open and free to change our press environment in the worst direction.

Mr. Tusk is president of the European Council and he might be renewed. Is that helpful in this regard or is it increasing the antagonism Warsaw – Brussels?

It is helpful from my point of view, but he is in a very uncomfortable situation. On the one hand, as the head of the Council, he must be neutral, but on the other hand he very much wants to engage in Polish matters.

As you might know, Polish citizens support the EU by a 82 or 83% margin, so a serious politician must consider the very pro-European positioning of people living in this country.

From my point of view, it’s necessary to prove every day that Poland is a part of united Europe and to respect some interventions of the European institutions in Polish matters.

In March the EU will celebrate its 60th anniversary in Rome. There are talks about re-launching the European project with a roadmap on this occasion, and people are considering mentioning the role of the media. Would that make sense? What would you recommend to the heads of government if you were addressing them?

European authorities could collaborate to increase the role of media, but it’s still not enough. Traditional media are losing the battle with the new tech giants like Google and others, so what we need is a common interest of governments and of the European institutions in protecting the presence of traditional professional media in Europe.

I think that they have a very enigmatic and utopian vision of the future instead of being close to reality. Some claim traditional professional media are over and now it’s time for a new future, but no one says what this will be.

In the interest of societies, of nations and of Europe as a whole, we must protect the value that is national traditional professional media. This has never been said loudly and clearly enough in Europe in the last years.

Some people say that the EU has never tackled the media sector as a normal economic sector, like it did for coal, steel and the cars industry. Moreover, there seem to be lots of press freedom declarations, but little action on the economic side. What do you think?

It’s true. We need some instruments of protection of European media by European authorities. For example on the field of the authors’ rights I mentioned the digital single market initiative and we need such an effort from Europe just to understand the sense of information turnover control and protected by traditional media

People think there are three courses of action which could be undertaken. One is indeed regulatory, like the one you have just mentioned. The second one would be to subsidise the media directly and the third one to support innovation projects, accelerating the evolution of the media for example on content exchanges. What do you think?

I think the third point is the best. I cannot imagine direct subsidies working in Poland because we don’t have such a tradition like in France, for example.

However, I would welcome making some progress in assuring us about authors rights in Europe and also perhaps establishing funds for innovation in order to help us compete with big groups from the States.

How open are you to new revenue models like native advertising?

There is no other way. The internet accepted it and I think that we must accept it too, but we have to be very careful in finding the right proportion between traditional content and native advertising. We also need to announce precisely that an article is sponsored or attributed to a commercial partner.

Another model is to open editorially independent sections on broad topics which could be financed by sponsors without interfering with the content. Are you open to that?

Yes, I could support it.