Local journalist vs local government – an interview

Martyna Bójko (Citizens Network Watchdog Poland): You have just defended your Master’s thesis at the University of Łódź, entitled “Local journalist vs local government – methods of wielding influence”. Was the choice of such subject motivated by your experiences as a local journalist? Are the pressures exerted by local governments on local press significant?

Justyna Małycha (pabiaNICE.tv): Indeed, it does not happen often for a practitioner to write a Master’s thesis on their daily activity. And this subject is important and little noticed, although when I was writing the thesis, TVN (a national private TV channel) broadcasted  a material entitled “Intimidating a journalist” in which local journalists speak about the problem of pressure exerted by the authorities. But generally this subject rarely appears in the mainstream media. Something truly significant must happen, for example when the “Wspólnota Radzyńska” (local newspaper) editorial team was thrown out of their premises, Gazeta Wyborcza (one of the largest national daily newspapers) wrote about it. These are extreme situations, but no one talks about our daily problems, and it is easier to write something about a politician from the Parliament benches than a person you pass in the street every day, you sit next to them at a session and you have to shake their hand. This is why I wanted people to see how it was, from inside.

MB: And from your point of view, what is the division into newspapers published by the local government and independent ones? Are there more of one type, is there some tendency?

JM: We do not have a local government newspaper in Pabianice (town populated by 60,000 inhabitants, ), but for example in the nearby Rzgów there is one, and it serves, at least it served until recently, as a propaganda mouthpiece for the self-government authorities. There is also a private newspaper, very inconvenient for the authorities. The Chair of the City Council happened to address its editors stating that they should sit on their a…s and accepted someone else’s superiority.

There are local government newspapers in the local communes, for example in Dobroń or Łask. However even if there are none, private newspapers often start to fulfil their function as they write texts supportive of the local government in exchange for paid announcements or advertisements.

I somewhat understand the reason of existence of local government newspapers because the authorities can publish various important announcements there, which would not be printed by any commercial paper unless they are paid for.

But on the other hand, each council has its compulsory Public Information Bulletin, its website, and there is space for all that information. And occasionally buying advertising space in a local paper is still cheaper than maintaining an editorial team of a local government paper.

The situation in Rzgów was so pathological that not only the newspaper was published with the taxpayers’ money, it published commercial advertisements (although it should not do this), and readers had to pay for it. Only after the intervention of the Regional Accounting Chamber (an institution auditing finances of local governments) “Rzgów – Nasza Gmina” became a free paper, without adverts. Even if the local newspaper does not attack private ones, it does not have any substantive value, each page contains praises to the city or town mayor, or district head – that they have opened a new pavement, etc.

The funniest thing is that the very officials who suppress newspapers that are critical of them try to build their image as great advocates of independent press. One of the heroes of my article, CEO of the Water Supply and Sewage Works (a company owned by the local government) in Pabianice fired an employee for editing a company newsletter and at the council meeting (he is a councillor) he held a piece of paper stating Free media when the protests in defence of media were held (this refers to the Poland-wide protests of December 2016, connected with the attempt of limiting the access of media to the Sejm and Senat). We pointed it out to him, of course.

MB: Precisely, you received an award for this article in the competition for local journalists, organised by the Watchdog Poland, and it was not the only award for this text?

JM: Yes, Plumber and sacred cows received a recognition in 2015 from the Polish Journalist Association.  

MB: From the same year (2015) you have been working together in a tandem with Magdalena Hodak, editor-in-chief of “PabiaNICE”.

JM: We have founded our own newspaper which survived a year in its paper form, now we are available online. We don’t have any adverts from municipal companies, unlike other newspapers, and we probably will never have them, as we quite often criticise what they do. I will tell you about the hospital in Pabianice (hospitals are owned by the local government). A marketing department was created specially for a PiS (Law an Justice) councillor’s husband – he became its manager. Since then, the councillor moved to another political camp and started supporting all of the mayor’s ideas. We wrote about it. And what did other Pabianice newspapers have to say about it? One started publishing a monthly 4-page insert “Hospital Pulse – PCM Patient’s Guide”. You can read there among other things about commercial services provided by the hospital, medical equipment, interviews with doctors, etc. The hospital was supposed to pay PLN 3,500 per month (around EUR 750,   150% of minimum wage costs)   for the preparation and printing, but as it is a municipal hospital, in fact we are all paying. And will such paper write anything bad about the hospital?

MB: How do you support yourself?

JM: We are trying to support ourselves from adverts, but it’s not easy. We also encourage readers to support us, but this is also not easy. Competitors find it easier because they have regular announcements from the municipal office, district office and companies. When the Water Supply and Sewage Works organise the Water Day, they will not order a poster to be published by us – if only for that text about the CEO of municipal waterworks.

MB: Why do municipal companies advertise when they are monopolists in the market?

JM: Exactly. For example a full page advert encouraging inhabitants to drink tap water. The Water Supply and Sewage Works spend huge money on promoting “tap water”, so we asked municipal companies how much they were spending on bottled water each year. It turned out that they were spending around PLN 42,000 per year. After our text, decanters with water appeared during town council sessions.

MB: Do readers appreciate you for your independence?

JM: We are quite popular, texts stir up lively responses and discussions among Pabianice residents. Unfortunately, this does not translate into the support for the portal – people have got used to getting everything for free online. We are considering introduction of partly paid content when a report or an extensive investigative text appears, requiring a significant effort. Because such texts can only be found in our paper. We are the only ones to touch upon subjects that are inconvenient for the authorities.

MB: True, readers need to see that if they want independent press, they must contribute to it a little.

JM: This is what we wrote in the appeal to support our portal. That we are a newspaper which follows a mission and that we are keeping an eye on the authorities.

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