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11 January, 2016  ▪  Iwona Reichardt

Freedom Quota

What role Gazeta Wyborcza played in Poland's transition from communism to democracy

The year 1989 was a breakthrough moment in the history of modern Poland. In the first half of that year unprecedented changes started to take place which allowed for the transformation of the country from a people’s republic to a liberal democracy. Among the most important events that took place then was a series of negotiations between the democratic opposition, gathered around the Solidarity movement, and communist authorities which directly paved way for the first partially-free elections in post-war Poland and the establishment of a new daily – Gazeta Wyborcza (Electoral Gazette). The latter was meant to be the campaign tool for the opposition. Thus, it was Adam Michnik, one of the key figures of the Solidarity movement, whom Lech Wałęsa, its leader and chairman of the trade union Solidarność, appointed as the newspaper’s editor-in-chief.  Michnik holds this position until today.

Initially, Gazeta Wyborcza was an unofficial organ of the union. Carrying its logo and masthead that proclaimed “There is no freedom without solidarity” on its cover page, the daily had a strong beginning. At that moment in Poland the hunger for independent news was still deeply unsatisfied and the views presented by Gazeta Wyborcza had almost no competition. In the first month alone, its circulation reached half a million copies. The newspaper was read by supporters and members of both the opposition and the communist party. Influencing the final results of the June 1989 elections the newspaper soon became the number one opinion-shaper and kingmaker.

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The newspaper enjoyed a privileged and near-monopolistic position among non-governmental media until Michnik entered into a disagreement with Wałęsa and the latter ordered the removal of the Solidarity’s logo from its front page. With this symbolic act, the daily cut its formal affiliation with the trade union and became independent. Since then it has been continuously published by the media company Agora, set up by Andrzej Wajda, a well-known film director, among others. Until today Agora has remained one of the largest media companies in Poland. Since 1999 its shares have been traded on the Warsaw Stock Exchange.

Following the model of the Western press, in particular the French daily Le Monde, and the Anglo-Saxon tradition of public journalism embodied by the BBC, Gazeta Wyborcza offered a new quality in Polish public discourse starting in the 1990s. Since its early days, the editorial philosophy has visibly reflected a liberal approach to democracy and the free market. Through the prism of these two ideologies the daily started to interpret and influence changes taking place in Poland. Throughout the years, both the opinion pieces and reports published on its pages, Gazeta Wyborcza illustrated the editors’ positions on issues such as elections in Poland and abroad, Poland’s membership in NATO and the European Union, enlargement of the EU to the East, Poland’s foreign policy, human rights and civil liberties. Along with that it offered a platform for dialogue on historical issues, not afraid to show that Poles were not only victims but also oppressors under the 20th century totalitarian regimes. Thus, the theses of Tomasz Gross, who argued that the Poles were murderers of Jews during the Second World War, were also debated in the newspaper.

 It did not take long before it became clear that the materials published in GazetaWyborcza were not always met with wide public support, nor understanding. By tackling topics from a liberal, Western-oriented and highly politicised perspectives, the newspaper started to be labelled as “selective” (in Polish “wybiórcza” which is a play on words with the paper’s title “wyborcza”). It became accused of being a voice of a small group of people, the Polish elite, associated by their opponents with a compromised result of the 1989 Round Table talks.In time, the newspaper became also seen as a strong supporter of Western values, a proponent of multiculturalism and wide-ranging diversity. In other words, not entirely representing the views of the majority of Polish society. 

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A sense of lack of representation by Gazeta Wyborcza was also expressed by socially liberal circles. Such was the case, for example, of some feminist organisations that initially welcomed the paper’s weekly supplement, now also an independent magazine, Wysokie Obcasy (High Heels) which is addressed to women and assumed to promote gender equality. The departure from its feminist ideals – as critics of Wysokie Obcasy argue – can be seen both in its content and form. They point to sexist advertisements but also to bias in some of the materials. 

Entering into the new millennium and subsequent stages of Poland’s system transformation, voices of discontent expressed towards Gazeta Wyborcza grew stronger, especially on the right side of the political spectrum. Initially they found haven on the pages of another Polish daily, Rzeczpospolita, but in time (to be more precise, since 2012) built their own home in newly-created titles such as wSieci and Do Rzeczy, to name the most popular ones. Many of them have openly declared an anti-Wyborcza position. Naturally, as these outlets emerged in the era of the internet and a highly competitive media market, their beginnings were different as was their influence. In simple terms, they found their niche in the part of Poland that felt neglected and despised by Michnik and his editorial team. To stress their distinctiveness and opposition to Gazeta Wyborcza, now seen as mainstream media, they began calling themselves the “disobedient” press. Aiming to gain support similar to that of which Gazeta Wyborcza enjoyed in its early days, they took advantage of the already established culture of tabloidisation of news, which is visible in the sensational language and the simplified tone of many of their articles. These publications also offered space for the political opposition, since 2007 gathered primarily around JarosławKaczyński and the Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – which is now in power). Until today these publications offer a highly anti-liberal rhetoric where the anti-Wyborcza narrative plays the first fiddle.    

Today Gazeta Wyborcza is as old as the young Polish democracy. It has gone through the same growing pains as the country’s political, economic and social system has. And like the system that established it in 1989 it is now being put to a serious test. In October 2015 the Law and Justice Party was elected to parliament and formed a new government. At the time of the writing of this text, supporters of this government were gathering in prayer in front of the newspaper’s editorial office in Warsaw. With rosaries in their hands, their intention was “repentance for journalists” and “an end to the lies and hatred in Polish media”. Soon, their representatives in the parliament will introduce a new media law that will bring serious changes to the state-owned TV and radio.

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The Polish media landscape is about to head into uncharted waters. It is not even an open secret that the public media will get under strict control of the state, while the fate of the commercial media will be dependent on their relations with the new authorities. This will also impact Gazeta Wyborcza and is confirmed by both sources close to the newspaper and independent media observers. It is very likely that government agencies and majority-owned enterprises will withdraw from placing high-cost advertisements in Gazeta Wyborcza as well as cease its subscriptions. Theoretically, this could hurt the newspaperfinancially. However, it is also possible that the activities which are aimed at undermining the newspaper will increase its readership base. Thus, 2016 will be a crucial year for Gazeta Wyborcza, which – depending on what lessons it draws from recent history – may again highlight the newspaper’s position as a child of Poland’s media freedom. 


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