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Opinion | Poland's struggle for media freedom needs support – TheSpec.com

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While most of Europe was still asleep, viewers of Polish independent television programs, as well as internet surfers on this side of the Atlantic were stunned earlier this month to see their TV screens and web pages suddenly go black, showing only a sombre title: Media without a choice.

This was followed by an open letter representing over 40 commercial television stations, newspapers and magazines, protesting the new regulation proposed by the Polish government, forcing independent media to pay extra taxes on advertisements on top of what they already pay. Although this was officially presented as a necessary contribution in times of fighting the pandemic, it was clear to everyone that the real aim was to put media not controlled by the government financially out of business, only to be taken over by government owned enterprises. This would be the end of free media in Poland. The “blackout,” which lasted 24 hours was indeed, a shocking way of showing what it would look like without access to free media. To many it brought painful memories of that Sunday morning, Dec. 13, 1981, when martial law was imposed in then Communist-run Poland. On that day thousands of Solidarity activists, including Lech Wałesa, were arrested, but one member slept in until noon and wasn’t arrested along with the others, which he regrets today. That was Jarosław Kaczynski, the now leader of the ruling Law and Justice party, seen by many as the de facto single ruler of Poland. It is well known that nothing in the party happens without his consent.

The resilience, resolve and determination of the Solidarity movement in the ’80s forced the bankrupt Communist government to allow semifree elections in June 1989 which were overwhelmingly won by those in favour of freedom and a first non-Communist government was formed. In a domino effect, within months, other Soviet-dominated governments in Europe, inspired by the Polish example toppled, the Berlin Wall crumbled, and the Communist empire came to an end. A new era dawned.

Kaczynski has for many years shown fascination with how Victor Orban has suppressed the opposition in Hungary and has said that “we will have Budapest in Warsaw.” After reforming the justice system to be practically subordinated to the government’s whims, the ruling party still has to contend with a problem — the existence of free media which it cannot openly delegalize because Poland is still a member of the European Union and has to appear democratic. That is why the Law and Justice party devised a plan to financially destroy the media it hates. Free media is still the lifebuoy of millions of people in Poland who do not agree with what this government does. Without free media, Poles would never know about many scandals within the ruling party and government but, at the same time, if anything is done right, free media would acknowledge it. However, the independent TVN television does not reach everywhere and many people, especially in rural areas can only watch the state-run TVP television. This station, officially “public” has been turned into propaganda tool singing praises of everything the government does and spreading ridicule and contempt of the opposition.

Polish President Andrzej Duda has stated in an interview that Poland of today has greater freedom of the press and media than in 2015 when the present opposition was in power. According to the Reporters Without Borders organization, Poland’s ranking was 18th in the world in 2015 and dropped to 62 in 2020. This body ranks countries according to independence and pluralism of media, legal conditions, transparency of institutions and procedures, quality of infrastructure, safety of journalists, as well as level of abuse and violence.

We, living in Canada, take freedom of the press for granted. In the United States, if not for the freedom of the press, the Watergate scandal might not have been exposed by Washington Post. Furthermore, the United States survived the Donald Trump era because of freedom of the press and free media, which he called liars but did not dare to harm. Many Poles sighed with relief when Joe Biden won the election because they still see America as the pillar of democracy. Canada is also looked upon as a stable and decent democratic country. Polish people need a show of strong support from us living here and our governments in their struggle to return to full freedom and true democracy. The majority living in Poland do not want to return to times when their only source of true news was Radio Free Europe.

Witold Liliental was born in Warsaw, several months before the outbreak of the Second World War. He has contributed many articles to Polish publication and also works in radio.

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Britney Spears calls recent documentaries about her ‘hypocritical’

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Pop singer Britney Spears spoke out on Tuesday about recent documentaries about her life and career, calling them “hypocritical” because they rehash her personal problems while criticizing the media for reporting them the first time.

Walt Disney Co’s FX network and The New York Times released “Framing Britney Spears” in February. The documentary examined the singer’s meteoric rise to fame as a teenager, the ensuing media scrutiny and her widely publicized breakdown.And this month, the BBC released “The Battle for Britney: Fans, Cash and a Conservatorship” in Britain. It will debut in the United States and Canada starting May 11 via the BBC Select streaming service.

In an Instagram post, Spears did not name either documentary but said “so many documentaries about me this year with other people’s takes on my life.”

“These documentaries are so hypocritical … they criticize the media and then do the same thing,” she added.

In March, Spears said she cried for two weeks after watching part of “Framing Britney Spears”.

The BBC said in a statement on Tuesday that its documentary “explores the complexities surrounding conservatorship with care and sensitivity.”

“It does not take sides and features a wide range of contributors,” the statement added.

A New York Times spokesperson declined to comment.

Spears, who shot to fame in 1998 with the hit “Baby One More Time,” is in a court battle seeking to replace her father as her conservator. He was appointed to the role in 2008 after she was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment.

Her fans have shown their support on social media under the hashtags #We’reSorryBritney and #FreeBritney. Spears is scheduled to speak to a Los Angeles court in June.

In her Instagram post, which included a video of herself dancing, Spears said that “although I’ve had some pretty tough times in my life … I’ve had waaaayyyy more amazing times in my life and unfortunately my friends … I think the world is more interested in the negative.”

(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by David Gregorio)

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Grammy organizers change rules after allegations of corruption

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The organizers of music’s Grammy Awards on Friday announced an end to the so-called “secret” committees that have led to allegations that the highest honors in the industry are open to rigging.

The Recording Academy said that nominations for the next Grammy Awards in January 2022 will be selected by all of its more than 11,000 voting members, instead of by committees of 15-30 industry experts whose names were not revealed.

The Academy was slammed last year when Canadian artist The Weeknd got zero Grammy nominations, even though his critically acclaimed album “After Hours” was one of the biggest sellers of 2020.

The Weeknd, in a Twitter post last November, said “The Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency.”

The Recording Academy said in a statement on Friday that the changes were significant and were made “to ensure that the Grammy Awards rules and guidelines are transparent and equitable.”

Allegations that the Grammy nominations process is tainted were made in a legal complaint filed in early 2019 by the former chief executive of the Recording Academy, Deborah Dugan.

At the time, the Academy dismissed as “categorically false, misleading and wrong” Dugan’s claims that its members pushed artists they have relationships with. Dugan was later fired.

American pop star Halsey, also shut out of the 2021 Grammys, last year called the nominations process “elusive” and said she was “hoping for more transparency or reform.”

Former One Direction singer Zayn Malik called in March for an end to “secret committees.”

“I’m keeping the pressure on & fighting for transparency & inclusion. We need to make sure we are honoring and celebrating ‘creative excellence’ of ALL,” Malik tweeted hours ahead of the 2021 Grammy Awards ceremony.

The Recording Academy on Friday also said it was adding two new Grammy categories – for best global music performance, and best Latin urban music album – bringing to 86 the total number of Grammy Awards each year.

 

(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by David Gregorio)

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Movie theaters face uncertain future

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By Lisa Richwine

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Maryo Mogannam snuck into the Empire theater in San Francisco with his older cousins to watch “Animal House” when he was 14. He watched most of the James Bond movies at the historic art house and took his wife there on some of their first dates.

The cinema, which had been showing movies since the silent film era, served notice in February that it was permanently closing because of the impact of COVID-19. The marquee is now blank, and cardboard and paper cover the box office window.

“It’s kind of like losing a friend,” said Mogannam, now 57, who owns a retail shipping outlet near the theater, which had been renamed the CineArts at the Empire.

As vaccinated Americans emerge from their homes, they also may find their neighborhood theater is not there to greet them.

An eight-cinema chain in New England said it will not reopen. The same fate hit a Houston art house beloved by director Richard Linklater and, in a shock to Hollywood, more than 300 screens run by Los Angeles-based Pacific Theatres. That includes the Cinerama Dome, a landmark that hosted several red-carpet movie premieres.

Following a year of closures, theaters face deferred rent bills plus media companies’ focus on drawing customers to streaming services. Up to one-fourth of the roughly 40,000 screens in the United States could disappear in the next few years, Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter said.

The National Association of Theatre Owners rejects that estimate, spokesman Patrick Corcoran said, noting that similar dire warnings accompanying the advent of television and the switch to digital screens never came to pass.

Hollywood filmmakers want cinemas to thrive.

“It’s the only place where the art dominates,” said “Avatar” director James Cameron. “When you watch something on streaming, the other people in the room with you are welcome to interject, to pause to go to the bathroom, to text.”

At theaters, “we literally make a pact with ourselves to go and spend two to three hours in a focused enjoyment of the art.”

“For 300 people to laugh and cry at the same time, strangers, not just your family in your house, that’s a very powerful thing,” said Chloe Zhao, Oscar-nominated director of best picture nominee “Nomadland.”

At the Academy Awards on Sunday, the movie industry will “make a case for why cinema matters,” producer Stacey Sher said. While acknowledging the hardship of the pandemic, “we also have to fight for cinema and our love of it and the way it has gotten us through things,” she said.

About 58% of theaters have reopened in the United States and Canada, most restricted to 50% capacity or less. The biggest operators – AMC, Cinemark and Cineworld – make up roughly half the overall market.

Industry leaders project optimism, forecasting a big rebound after restrictions ease and studios unleash new blockbusters.

Coming attractions include a new Bond adventure, the ninth “Fast & Furious” film, a “Top Gun” sequel and several Marvel superhero movies.

“Avatar 2,” Cameron’s follow-up to the highest-grossing film of all time, is set to debut in December 2022. Some box office analysts predict 2022 ticket sales will hit a record.

Supporters point to late March release “Godzilla vs. Kong,” which brought in roughly $48.5 million at U.S. and Canadian box offices over its first five days, even though audiences could stream it on HBO Max.

“That was a big win for the entire industry,” said Rich Daughtridge, president and chief executive of Warehouse Cinemas in Frederick, Maryland.

But near- and long-term challenges loom, particularly for smaller cinemas.

Theaters are negotiating with landlords over back rent. A federal aid program was delayed due to technical problems.

Plus, media companies are bringing movies to homes sooner. Executives say streaming is their priority, pouring billions into programming made to watch in living rooms as they compete with Netflix Inc.

Most at risk are theaters with one or two screens, Wedbush Securities’ Pachter said. He said his best guess is between 5,000 and 10,000 screens could go permanently dark in coming years.

“I think we’ll see a gradual decline in the number of screens,” Pachter said, “just like we’ve seen a gradual decline in the number of mom-and-pop grocery stores and bookstores.”

 

(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Additional reporting by Rollo Ross in Los Angeles, Alicia Powell in New York and Nathan Frandino in San Francisco; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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