If you have become numbed to President Donald Trump’s constant attacks on the media, if you have lost interest in which networks he currently considers to be “fake news,” if you have grown tired of hearing him call journalists “enemies of the people” - well, that’s unfortunate, because plenty of others are still paying attention. Around the world, dictators and would-be authoritarians have picked up his attitude and his terminology. From Syria to Venezuela to Burma, authoritarians now dismiss legitimate criticism as “fake news.” The Libyan government has denounced a CNN report on human trafficking as “fake news”: If the U.S. president disdains the network, why should anybody else listen to them? The president of the Philippines invents stories about his political enemies from whole cloth, just like the president of the United States. And, with Trump at his side, Rodrigo Duterte recently dismissed a gaggle of reporters as “spies.”
Now the Polish government has been emboldened to take a step in the same direction. On Monday, the national media council slapped an extraordinary fine on TVN24, the largest and most important private television channel in the country. Declaring that the channel had been “promoting illegal activities and encouraging behavior that threatens security,” the council demanded 1.5 million zlotys ($420,000). In a very brief statement, the council related the charge to the channel’s coverage of anti-government demonstrations a year ago. No details were provided. But the message was perfectly clear: Private media should be very, very careful about broadcasting any opposition to the government.
If the message was clear, the nuances were interesting. For TVN24 is owned by Scripps Networks Interactive , an American company, which is in turn owned by the Discovery Communications. Their investment in the TVN group of channels is the largest U.S. investment in Poland, worth well over $1 billion. Rumors of government pressure on the company have been swirling for months, and this is the second time the company has been fined. In July, the government demanded an unexpected $30 million in curiously calculated “back taxes.”
The Polish government may be hoping that Discovery gets cold feet, and sells the channel to one of its friends. It may also be counting on the U.S. government to stay out. After all, the American president doesn’t like independent television reporters either.
The Polish authorities may have also been sending a message. For the decision was taken on the very day that the ruling party swapped its dour, angry prime minister, Beata Szydlo, for a slicker, smoother replacement, Mateusz Morawiecki. If anyone needed it, the TVN24 fine was proof that the change is superficial. Morawiecki may speak English better than his predecessor, but pressure on the courts, on journalists, on the civil service and the army will continue.
It all makes for an odd conundrum for a U.S. government whose own messages to Europe in general, and to Poland in particular, have been far less clear. Does the Trump administration back the Polish government in its attack on a television station because it also hates “fake news”? Or does the Trump administration back an American company which is being threatened abroad?
Anne Applebaum is a Washington Post columnist.