WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s state-run oil company, PKN Orlen, announced Monday that it was buying Polska Press, a private media group currently under German control that owns a wide swath of daily and weekly newspapers in the country.
Critics of the right-wing government called it a dark day for media freedom, fearing that it will bring greater state control over the media and even censorship as democratic standards in the country decline, courts lose independence and a high court recently further tightened an already restrictive abortion law.
There was no immediate comment from the government, but the move is consistent with an effort by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland’s nationalist ruling party, to decrease foreign ownership of the media in Poland.
“The media in Poland should be Polish,” Kaczynski said this summer.
The company’s CEO, Daniel Obajtek, tweeted that Orlen is buying Polska Press from its current owner, Germany’s Verlagsgruppe Passau. Orlen is a refiner of oil and the owner of a chain of gas stations which is only now joining the publishing business by taking control of one of the country’s largest media publishers.
Obajtek, who was appointed by the ruling party, said the company is expanding its business interests.
Critics of the party, Law and Justice, fear that the change in ownership will be a blow to media freedom after the party has already transformed state TV, radio and other publicly owned media into party mouthpieces.
“This is very bad news,” tweeted Bart Staszewski, a prominent LGBT rights activist. “Especially for activists from smaller towns who can get their message across thanks to the local media.”
Since Kaczynski’s party won power in 2015, it has spoken of wanting to “re-Polonize,” meaning nationalize many of the foreign-own media companies, arguing that it is important for Polish national sovereignty for Polish-owned outlets to control the information that Poles consume.
To date, Poland’s private media sphere has been varied and dynamic. Government critics fear that Orlen’s takeover of the media group, which had been rumored for months, would move Poland closer to a Hungary-style media landscape. There, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has gained near-total control over the media as private outlets have either folded or come under the control of Orban allies.
Gazeta Wyborcza, a liberal daily, ran a story with the headline suggesting it moves Poland even closer to a model under Russian President Vladimir Putin: “The Hungarian-Putin scenario is coming true. A black day for press freedom.”
Other independent media companies that will still be standing after the buyout include Gazeta Wyborcza and Rzeczpospolita, the counties key dailies.
Polska Press’s publications mostly serve Polish regions outside of the big cities, a largely conservative electorate that has traditionally supported Law and Justice’s conservative vision — and who will be crucial in future elections.
Law and Justice has since 2015 been in conflict with the European Union over changes to the judiciary which have given the party greater control over the courts, and created concerns over democratic backsliding.
Polska Press owns more than 20 dailies, nearly 120 regional weeklies and many internet portals, reaching an estimated 17.4 million readers in the central European nation of 38 million people.