Two realities – the Polish case

Posted on 16. April 2016

by Michal Gulczynski

michal-gulczynskiIn spite of all the splendid information and communication technologies, it seems very difficult to communicate nowadays. We live in an information bubble, which tends to radicalise our political beliefs. Information now is like music – you only listen to what you like. The posts you see on Facebook depend on what you ‘liked’ in the past. The tweets you see depend on who you have decided to follow. Thanks to the variety of TV channels, you never have to be confronted by opinions you don’t agree with. Why would you like, follow or watch someone who holds the ‘wrong’ opinion?

The phenomenon of the information bubble, created in this way, can lead to very dangerous political changes. The best example is Poland. We have the first one-party government since the fall of communism. And we also have a very strong, recently founded, grass roots opposition movement: the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD). According to the last opinion survey, 46% of Poles support the KOD and 42% support the government of Law and Justice (PiS). How is it possible that in such a short time society became so extremely divided?

I believe that both parts of the Polish nation are experiencing two different realities. The supporters of KOD follow liberal or leftist media, such as Gazeta Wyborcza or TVN. They are more or less satisfied with the changes that have taken place in our country in the last 27 years. Their lives are rather stable, they feel free to do anything they want. They can watch the TV they like and they can fulfil their interests and dreams. For them, PiS is a threat to their liberty and stability, to accountable governance and to the respect of the rule of law. Furthermore, they care about the reputation of Poland abroad, which has been heavily damaged since the elections. In PiS’ rhetoric, KOD supporters are the elites who benefited from the transformation and are now afraid of losing their ‘privileges’.

Poland’s transition from a communist country to a democracy is generally deemed a successful one. However, in the Polish transformation not everything has gone well. A huge part of society was not able to profit from the economic liberalisation; many of them now support the PiS government. But why are PiS supporters so consistent in their nationalist and socialist choice? How was it possible for PiS to come in second place eight times in a row and not lose support?

Although they went all the way to the European Parliament to complain about the state of freedom of speech in Tusk’s Poland, PiS has created its own alternative media system, comprising TRWAM and Radio Maryja of the friar Tadeusz Rydzyk, Gazeta Polska (controlled by people closely related to PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczyński) and wSieci (a weekly known for showing President Andrzej Duda on the cover 11 times in 15 weeks) to mention only some of them. Now their media structure includes also the public media and is managed by Jacek Kurski, a former influential PiS member, known for accusing the grandfather of Donald Tusk of being a voluntary soldier for the Wehrmacht and declaring himself a ‘responsive disciple’ of Jarosław Kaczyński. His task is to ‘guarantee more pluralism’ in public media. He started his job by firing a lot of famous journalists and other employees responsible for the news bulletin. Instead, a vision much closer to the government’s one is presented. PiS-friendly media outlets’ reporting on the visit of Venice Commission representatives’, which were very critical of PiS government’s amendments to the Act on the Constitutional Tribunal, can serve as an example: the host of the news bulletin asked whether the Venice Commission is a credible institution, to which the reporter answered that it is an ‘emanation of the European establishment’, dismissing its authority.

The changes in public media are a part of what PiS defines as dobra zmiana (good change), along with the reforms of the Constitutional Tribunal, civil service, surveillance restrictions, the educational system and with the introduction of 500 PLN monthly for (almost) every child. These ‘good change’ reforms are meant to dismantle the post-communist, capitalist system and in the eyes of many, they justify any move of the government.

Very strong anti-communist rhetoric does not hinder PiS from establishing the leading role of the party and its president, Jarosław Kaczyński, exposing its deputy Stanisław Piotrowicz (public prosecutor during the martial law in 1981-83) or assigning former Communist Party members to posts in state-owned enterprises. However, thanks to a biased and consistent communication framing these concepts in a partisan fashion, these practices do not seem to be in contradiction to the eyes of PiS’ supporters.

There is also a lot to be said about the language used by PiS. Interestingly, according to professor Michał Głowiński – recognised expert on the rhetoric of communist authorities in the Polish People’s Republic –, PiS’ rhetoric is very similar to the communist newspeak. For instance, any kind of criticism expressed abroad is a donos (denunciation) of Poland (not just of the government). The criticism on the government within the country is labelled wściekłe ataki (wild attacks). The system created after 1989 is an układ (arrangement). The journalists who support PiS are niezależni (independent) and the others are mainstream (and before the elections: regime). The supporters of the previous Civic Platform government were lemmings. Any person with a non-conservative point of view is a lewak (pejorative for extreme leftist). On the other hand, the football hooligans with Polish flags are young patriots and the victims of the presidential aircraft crash in Smolensk are polegli (the fallen), who were carrying the message of an independent Poland.

In my opinion, PiS-friendly media and their astutely used language contributed to the split in Polish society. They have created a world wherein the Germans and Brussels are imposing their gender ideology upon the Polish people; protesters from KOD are people who have lost their privileges and cannot accept that they have lost the elections; Putin might have killed the Polish president; Tusk might have covered it up; and Poland is allegedly hosting one million of refugees from neighbouring Ukraine, while millions of others are being sent by Merkel. They make it possible for the voters to believe any kind of contradiction, such as the former Communist Party members who now play a role in PiS, a self-described anti-communist party, or the socialist ‘secretary-general’ fighting for democracy against the communists.

It is possible that in this article, I have not managed to be impartial. But I believe that it does not matter that you have discovered to which part of Polish society I belong to. This text was not meant as a wild attack or denunciation of Poland, but rather as an observation and a warning. Because the problem of the information bubble does not concern Poland alone. We can observe similar divides, for example, in France and Germany as well. But so far, nobody has found a solution. Maybe you have some ideas?