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Fake news causes concern

Polish National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT) Chairman M. Świrski
on the fining of Radio Zet:
Fake news caused concern!

 wPolityce.pl. We have learned today that you decided to fine EuroZet. Why so?

Maciej Świrski, Chairman of the National Broadcasting Council: Let’s start from the other side. Put yourself in the following situation… Let’s say you are an ordinary media consumer in Poland. You find out first on Twitter, then through a series of information on the pages of EuroZet, and then through a radio broadcast and the nationwide coverage of all the media that, without the knowledge of the Polish security services, the American special services or the secret service ‘smuggled’ President Zelensky through Polish territory during his trip to the United States because they had lost confidence in the Polish security services. And what do you feel? 

Astonishment, dismay and, of course, concern for the safety of the country and myself, since the American secret service has lost confidence in the Polish security services.

Do you try to verify this information or do you believe it?

With such wide and far-reaching spread of information, I most probably believe it.

Please be aware that this is not a possible scenario of some hypothetical event. This kind of announcement has been made public by RadioZet. If it were true, it would mean that Poland is indeed in some kind of dramatic situation, because the Polish security services are not worthy of the trust of the American secret service, the security services of our principle ally. And this is happening in a situation of a hybrid war, at least an informational war, and in a situation of a real war threat.

And what was the truth?

I put this question to the Polish security services, specifically through the ministerial coordinator for special services. And I received the answer that it was a lie and that none of what Radio Zet described had occurred. I also asked Minister Mariusz Kamiński whether Radio Zet had at least asked the minister or any of the Polish security services about this matter. And here I received the answer that no one had asked any of the services for a comment. There was no such contact from EuroZet journalists. In turn, when EuroZet was asked during the investigation about the sources of the information it had provided, it refused to answer, hiding behind the protection of these sources. Nor did it answer the question of whether it had asked the Polish authorities or the minister to confirm its information.

That is, the truth of the matter is as follows: in a war situation, when Poland is involved in supporting Ukraine, information from unknown sources, not based on the truth, nor verified, appears in the Polish media, which undermines the confidence of citizens in the secret services of our state, in their professionalism and in relations with an ally. I would like to remind you that such false news is simply fake news.

I would also like to remind you that Article 12 of the Press Law Act states that a journalist is obliged to exercise special care and diligence in the collection and use of press material, especially to check compliance with the truth and indicate the source.

This was not done in this case?

 As I said, I asked the broadcaster whether its journalists had contacted the subject of the story about the matter, in accordance with the aforementioned Article 12, as well as Article 6 of the Press Law, Act which states that the press is obliged to provide true representation of passing events. And asking the story broadcaster its opinion on the matter in question is one of the basic principles of journalism and journalistic integrity. If there had been at least an attempt at such contact, if there had been journalistic integrity – there would not have been this piece of fake news, there would not have been this whole affair.

In general, all of Eurozet’s writings on this issue show a complete misunderstanding of what the problem is – journalistic integrity in a situation of reporting on matters of state security. I do not accept the idea that the broadcaster knowingly published a lie that undermines our citizens’ confidence in the state’s ability to govern its territory.

 And that is why EuroZet was punished – for broadcasting such a programme?

Yes. For broadcasting a programme that contains a lie, a message that is not based on the truth, i.e. a breach of journalistic integrity, which violates not only the Press Law Act to which the Broadcasting Act refers, but also the Polish raison d’état. I imposed a fine of PLN 476,000 on this broadcaster, which is half of the fees it paid for the frequencies it used.

Why is the fine so high?

The amount of the fine is so high because the false, unconfirmed broadcast (which is not true information) and the fact that it had a very wide media resonance caused additional public concern.

The fake news broadcast by Radio Zet appeared in the national coverage of all the media. It became part of the hybrid war waged by Russia and Belarus against Poland, the leitmotif of which is to undermine the sense of responsibility of the authorities, to raise concerns about border security, and to ridicule Polish efforts to strengthen the country’s defences, including the effectiveness of the Polish security services, the Border Guard and the Polish Army.

Despite a year and a half of full-scale war in Ukraine, which has revealed the true face of Russia and the intentions of its authorities, despite an even longer hybrid war on the Polish-Belarusian border – because that is what the constant flood of people from Africa and Asia that Russia and Belarus are dragging in really is – there are still many who fail to see how serious a threat Russia poses to Poland and how much it wants to destabilise Poland. This is a real threat, and not one that is relegated to the future, but one that is happening right here and now.

All of us Poles need prudence and unity, a sense of community, even if we are divided by many things. This is where the media can do a lot – by providing reliable information and not seeking sensationalism. Unfortunately, often, far too often, for the sake of ‘clickability’ or ‘ratings’ and ‘listenership’, because of their own political preferences, their preference for the interests of other countries or even the European Union over the interests of their own country, and finally out of sheer stupidity, the media, instead of providing reliable information, try to shape opinions by stirring up violent emotions or even pitting one against the other. They divide rather than unite. This is always reprehensible, but in the situation in which Poland finds itself in as a frontline country, a logistical hub for Ukraine, and therefore at the very least an obvious target for Russia’s disinformation activities, it is unacceptable and reprehensible.

This is not just a Polish problem. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and other former ‘breakaway’ states that are still of interest to Russia have similar problems. I am a historian, and the history of the 20th century in our part of Europe is particularly close to my heart. So I know Russia’s ways well, and they have not changed – only the technical possibilities and tools have changed.

 But the Press Law Act does mention the watchdog role of the media. If the media expose some irregularities, this is a welcome, positive action. So why are you imposing a fine in this case?

Because in this particular case EuroZet did not really expose the irregularities that existed, the journalists did not expose anything. No. They gave fabricated, false information. They created a false news story. This is typical fake news, which creates confusion in the infosphere, misleads citizens and, as it spreads, creates what I can call an ‘informational smog’. Why did they do this? Perhaps it was simply to increase the number of listeners, to increase the number of hits on websites and social media, because of course this fake news has also spread on the Internet.

Fake news is a threat to Poland, especially fake news that affects the security of the country, its defence capabilities or the capabilities of the Polish security services. Russia has been conducting disinformation operations against Poland for years, and what happened at Radio Zet fits exactly into this context. Poland is in danger of being attacked by Russia, and Russia is talking about it directly. I remember that Putin openly said that he would invade Ukraine. Nobody believed it, but Russia did invade Ukraine.

In the same way, Putin says openly that Russia will remind Poland to whom it owes the so-called recovered western territories. We are in a dangerous situation and, quite simply, the media need to be particularly sensitive in terms of respect, respect for the Polish raison d’état. The news reported by Radio Zet endangered Poland’s security, therefore the punishment is commensurate with the seriousness of the offence. Suffice it to say that this type of behaviour will be vigorously pursued by the regulatory authorities. This is not a trivial matter, it is about the security of the state and the security of all of us.

And what about freedom of speech?

 Freedom of speech does not mean the freedom to lie. It is time to do something about about the many years of silence on fake news and untruthful content in the electronic media. If there is no reaction to lies, there is an inflation of the meaning of ‘the word’, there is a social desensitisation to lies, not only in the media sphere, but also in social life. And in the end it turns out that you cannot believe anyone or anything. Hence the low level of social capital in Poland. And the disappearance of social capital leads to the disintegration of the community. All the media present in Poland, including the commercial ones, must finally respect the basic values that are precious to our nation – such as our statehood, as well as the family, human dignity, the Christian system of values (which is enshrined in both the law and the Constitution). And truth, as a value that is at the basis of all thought, because truth is bound to reality.

At this point, a few words should be said about a phenomenon that was present in Poland under communism and is now returning with a vengeance – I call it ‘semantic theft’. It is the substitution of new meanings for words that have always been clearly understood by the community. The process of semantic theft involves giving words a new meaning, often the opposite of their previous meaning. During the communist occupation, especially at the beginning, the communist party was called a democratic force, the communist dictatorship was called a democracy, and all those who opposed the communists were called – fascists.

This remark, as I understand it, is not only historical?

Yes. It is also the case today, when the democratically elected and democratically accountable government of the Republic  of Poland is called a ‘regime’ and actions to restore the balance of the message in the public media are called ‘censorship’. ‘Semantic theft’ leads to the manipulation of public discourse, the creation of false narratives or the creation of confusion. Add to this the conformism of many circles and it becomes clear that we are speaking a specific ‘volapik’, a newspeak that transforms the message. At the same time, various issues cannot be called by their proper names because of political correctness, the stigmatisation of the recalcitrant and the exclusion of those who speak a normal language where truth is truth and falsehood is falsehood. This is destroying the community. It must be stopped.

 So you want to control the media?

 I certainly do not intend to introduce any form of censorship. Instead, I intend to restore the category of truth in the media, because I believe that truth is the foundation of Poland’s information security. I hope that this fine will be the first step towards awakening the minds of all those who, either out of hatred for their political opponents or simply to make money by sensationalising fake news, are throwing additional missiles into the Polish infosphere, which is threatened by Russian disinformation and is destroying citizens’ trust in the state and, incidentally – in the media. It is no coincidence that in a recent survey of trust in various professions, journalism came last. People simply know that the commercial media present in Poland at the moment are not concerned with the truth, but with the money to be made by producing news (not information) to arouse sensation and hatred for those whom various political gurus tell them to hate.

This, of course, includes the brutalisation of the message and language – not only the vulgarity and gutter language of many of those who speak or appear in the commercial media, but also, in my opinion deliberately, treatment of others straight out of communist and Nazi propaganda textbooks – dehumanisation, contempt for individuals, comparing them to wood ticks (as happened on TokFM) and the like. What is more, in the commercial media these phenomena are paid for by advertisers, because the media owe their livelihood to advertising and collected fees.

I call what happened after 2015 in the electronic commercial media the militarisation of media narratives in Poland.

What do you mean by that?

It means that information is used as a weapon in the political game. It is no longer information, but a manufactured message that does not inform, but creates an impulse to generate a mass of narratives based on it, to create context for amplifying some actions, real political actions or – as in the case of Radio Zet’s information – disinformation that strikes at the Polish raison d’état. We remember the articles in Onet that Polish ‘Grot’ carbines were useless, published just before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. What was the purpose of such a thing?

Many are asking themselves this question.

In my opinion, it may have been in the interest of rival arms manufacturers to scupper Polish contracts in Ukraine so that another manufacturer could step in. Those who did this, those who were behind all the media fuss about the ‘Grot’ carbines, must have known that Poland was arming Ukraine with these rifles because there were preparations to repel a Russian attack. This, by the way, shows the destructive role of disinformation in Polish public life, not only from a political point of view, which damages Poland’s reputation, but also from a business point of view. At the moment in Poland you can hear various slanderous opinions about products or companies in the media, and then after years of litigation it turns out that these opinions were false, but companies attacked in this way have in the meantime lost certain elements of value – contracts, customers, reputation.

After all, you can always ask for misinformation to be corrected.

As I have said many times before – the Press Law Act in Poland needs to be rewritten from scratch, while an amendment introducing a quick correction should be introduced as soon as possible. The situation of the current savagery in the spread of fake news is also due to the fact that the existing legislation on various corrections is practically dead. The situation with Radio Zet and the fake news for which I have now imposed a penalty would not have happened if the Press Law Act had worked in this respect, because journalists would simply have known that there would be an immediate correction and probably a lawsuit for the violation of personal rights. In today’s situation, both the authorities and the public have lost faith that the case will be resolved quickly, given the current state of the judiciary and the media.

Moreover, it is common for media outlets that write lies about individuals or institutions to use the content of litigation materials (e.g. a response to a statement of defence) to further defame and build a hostile narrative against the plaintiffs. On the other hand, Article 3 of the Broadcasting Act gives the Chairman of the KRRiT the power to apply the Press Law Act if the law is violated in the electronic media, in particular Article 6 of the Press Law Act, which reads as follows: ‘The press is obliged to a true representation of passing events’.

As I have already pointed out, in this case, when it comes to this programme on Radio Zet, the proof of unreliability is simple – the failure to ask the relevant institutions, namely the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministerial Coordinator for Special Services or the State Protection Service. The fact that they failed to do so shows an extreme disregard for journalistic principles and is therefore dishonest. So we have two aspects to this case: the lack of integrity required by the Press Law Act and the violation of the Polish raison d’état. The fine I have imposed therefore also has an educational component to it. I am pointing out that broadcasters can emit anything as long as it does not violate the law. And a lack of integrity in the material broadcast is a breach of the law.

 And if a broadcaster goes to court?

Of course it will appeal. Every citizen and every organisation operating in Poland has the right to do so. And then, in a public hearing, the broadcaster, through its lawyers, will explain why it presents unverified information and how it understands the Polish raison d’état. And why it believes that convincing Polish citizens that the Polish security services have lost the trust of the American secret services does not undermine citizens’  trust in the institutions of the Polish state in times of war threats. I think the citizens will listen to these explanations with astonishment. I wonder if Radio Zet will broadcast the hearings in this case. It would be good if they did it one-to-one, live, without cuts, so that our citizens can judge who is right here.

Why is it that there is so much fake news in the Polish media, information that is untrue, not based on sources or that does not reliably report what the sources say?

I believe it is the result of a confluence of three factors: first, a drastic lowering of journalistic standards, reinforced by industry ‘awards’. I will come to the reasons for this in a moment. The second factor is simply that some of the commercial media have taken the liberal side of the political debate. And thirdly, external interference with the use of various ‘useful idiots’, as the Bolsheviks called them, which has become common parlance. So why did journalistic standards fall so drastically? Because there was a process of commercialisation of the media, while at the same time cost cuts, and a remedy was found for this changed situation: the pursuit of sensationalism in order to increase revenues. This, in turn, drove people out of the profession who were attached to the ‘old school’ of journalism. Because it’s cheaper?

 Checking sources, confirming information, writing a decent text, editing the same text several times – all this takes time, and that means – less money for the publisher or broadcaster. Secondly, today’s state of journalism in Poland is due to the educational disaster caused by the misguided reform of 1999, 24 years ago, from which we are now struggling to recover. The introduction of the gymnasium (secondary school) and the shift in education from the acquisition of knowledge to the dexterity of test-taking, together with the cognitive conformism that went with it, has resulted in a large number of people born around 1987 having basic deficits in associating facts and phenomena, in logical thinking, in searching for information or even in spelling – as is often the case in various headlines or texts on portals.

The lack of a conceptual framework, which until recently every member of the Polish intelligentsia possessed, the uprooting from tradition and history, as well as extreme conformism, are all characteristics that favour the establishment of this phenomenon of media work, which has little to do with journalism. Moreover, people who think independently, who ask questions – not only about the phenomena they are covering, but also to their bosses, for example, why they are demanding an editorial line that is blatantly contrary to common sense or simply the truth – become a nuisance and eventually disappear from the newsroom. They are not fit for the job.

This form of negative selection is reinforced by people who spread a propaganda message hostile to Poland in order to keep themselves in a social or business circle. I am talking about all those awards that have been given to media workers who have described various phenomena in an extremely biased and untrue way. And the tone for all this is set and reinforced by those who know exactly what such methods are used for.

To what end is that?

Their aim is to break up the sense of community, so that Poland ceases to be a community, because without the common cause that is the homeland, our geographical location and the cultural area in which we feel ‘at home’, we are a crowd of individual, obedient consumers who buy what the advertisements tell us to buy. Without a community, and therefore without a state, Polishness will not survive. In this respect, we are in a worse situation than at the end of the 18th century, because then the collapse of the state did not lead to the collapse of culture and heritage. The Polish community survived precisely by drawing on the sources of the cultural heritage that had been created and was still being created. At the moment, unfortunately, there is no certainty that the culture created in Poland is community-generating. I have serious doubts about it.

And the only value that will allow Polishness to survive in such a situation is its own state structure that supports and protects the community. That is why the destruction of the community, the media attacks on the institution of the state with lying, weaponised narratives are so damaging. To put it bluntly – some media in Poland are destroying the Polish political community, creating divisions that negate the basic values of the Polish civilisational heritage. One of the values under particular attack is truth.

As I said in the Sejm (Parliament) during the presentation of the National Broadcasting Council’s (KRRiT) annual report – truth is the correspondence or adequacy between the intellect and reality. In other words, something is true when the intellect understands and reflects reality as it is. Understood in this way, the concept of truth emphasises the objectivity and independence of truth from our beliefs or preferences. It is a quality associated with reality that can be known through the thought process and appropriate reflection of reality in our minds. More generally, truth is about reflecting reality in a way that is consistent with what really happened. The correspondence between description and fact is a key criterion for judging the truthfulness of a statement or proposition. And also in the work of journalists.

This creates so-called bubbles, one can say powerful groups, in which there is no clash with another vision of events, and often no clash with the truth at all.

The fact that the media keep presenting informational materials that have nothing to do with reality means that the public, the citizens, begin to live in an alternative world that is different from the real, tangible reality. If we add to this the phenomenon of ‘informational bubbles’, in which entire communities are trapped as a result of the use of social media and the addictive mechanisms present on the Internet, we have a complete picture of the threats to the Polish community, which can only defend itself thanks to the existence of the state, and a strong state, which can oppose destructive phenomena.

From this statement it seems that the priorities of the President of the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT) are shifting towards ensuring informational security?

Not so much shifting as complementing. They are being expanded to include a section that has existed but has not been enforced. Article 3 of the Broadcasting Law, which delegates to the Press Law Act is very clear. Matters not regulated by the law are regulated by the Press Law Act. The chairman is obliged to react if he learns that there is a possibility of a breach of the law. There is no mention in the law that the chairman can react if he feels like it. He must react if there is a suspicion of a violation of the law, including the Press Law Act.

I repeat: freedom of speech is not freedom to lie.

 

 

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