“The more our governments are trying to divide us, the more we should connect and stay united” – Interview with Igor Stokfiszewski

(Interviewed by Tenna Sørensen, outgoing placement officer at SCI Italia)

Above headline summarizes the words of Igor Stokfiszewski – researcher, activist and journalist at the Polish media outlet Krytyka Polityczna – who was invited to Rome in the beginning of November to speak in the Final Conference of our project “CHAPTER: Challenging Propaganda through Remembrance”.

SCI Italia’s project CHAPTER was created in response to the current tendencies of recurring right-wing attitudes across Europe and the appertaining increase in populist media groups depicting third-country nationals and refugees as exploiters of the welfare system. Through research collected during five Remembrance Weeks hosted in different European countries, it compares the usage of Nazi-Fascist propaganda in the past to challenge the trends of the present. 

According to Mr. Stokfiszewski, projects such as CHAPTER are extremely relevant in order to maintain and move forward what he describes as ‘the fire of hope, emancipation, progress and rights’. Referring to the recurring tendency of emerging right-wing attitudes, he says: 

“In Europe and also elsewhere, we find ourselves in a difficult position in regards to the future because of what is happening among our societies and with our governments”. 

Jakub Szafranski ©

‘THEM’ AND ‘US’ NARRATIVES AND PROPAGANDA IN POLAND 

Mr. Stokfiszewski is from Poland – a country, which also in recent years has received attention regarding its right-wing narratives and efforts of propaganda. Looking at his home country, he points to a plethora of different examples including an attack by the current president Andrzej Duda on the LGBTQ+ communities with slogans such as ‘these are not people – this is ideology’ used to attract votes during his electoral campaign in 2019. 

Mr. Stokfiszewski also mentions a strong rhetoric of the Polish government against the right of abortion slamming women getting abortions as murderers in the attempt to ban it. Lastly, the dividing narrative has adopted itself in the current refugee crisis, which in the case of Poland is taking place on the border to Belarus. According to Mr. Stokfiszewski, the rhetoric here is ‘full of racism’, ‘lacking empathy’ and ‘a rhetoric related to the war’ from the side of Belarus and Russia: 

 “We are under a hybrid war and this is also the reason why our government and the president decided to introduce a martial law in some of the regions of eastern Poland in order to have a legal framework in which they can do whatever they want, which means not to let refugees in” – he says. 

Mr. Stokfiszewski adds the fact that journalists and activists are not allowed to go there, which means that access to information is dependent on the local people and whistle blowers.

“NO LONGER A GENERAL PROPAGANDA ATTACK” 

According to Mr. Stokfiszewski, today’s use of propaganda has changed from general propaganda attacks in the past to being more targeting:

When I think about how our right-wing government and forces operate today, I see that they do not longer believe that they can push their message towards the entirety of the society. Instead, they are trying to reach their electoral base and use propaganda in the sense that they change their content according to the receivers of their messages meaning that they use different messages on television, in museums and on social media to target different segments”. 

He adds that the rhetoric of the Polish government has generally been successful and received with quite big public support for the government. 

According to research, such tendencies as a totalitarian approach wanting to divide between who belong to us and who do not are very popular among the Polish society” – he says. 

Mr. Stokfiszewski claims that even the voters of Civic Platform, Poland’s liberal party, have shown to be in favor of the government’s attitudes against welcoming refugees. To this, he concludes: 

We should not count that much on the political processes but more on the social transformation through media and culture, which gives a little bit of hope because people like us in the civil society sector, activists, social movements and so on are quite skillful in pushing forward the social transformation even if we do not have access to media and infrastructure power institutions.”

TOOLS OF COUNTERPROPAGANDA IN POLAND

Mr. Stokfiszewski admits that there are only a few tools used to counter propaganda in Poland. One tool is the street, which as he explains became a very visible and strong platform of counterpropaganda during a women’s strike in 2020.

“I am not only speaking about the protests but also about covering the streets and the buildings with graffiti of political slogans, very strong political slogans related to resistance” – he says.

He elaborates that this form of counterpropaganda is especially powerful as it provides those resisting with the feeling of safety.

Another tool, according to Mr. Stokfiszewski, is new independent media. He points out the need of a change in media from being one-way communication to including the recipients: 

“There is a necessity to develop new participatory, interactive ways of communication with people reading the media in which social and political narratives are co-constructed among a really large number of people and not only the ones who have the means of production of content”.

The last tool currently used to counter propaganda in Poland is the social centers – some autonomous and others supported by liberal or left-liberal local governments. 

It seems that there is some kind of common goal, which makes us interconnected in a different way than we used to be and gives a possibility to have platforms of counterpropaganda like social centers supported by the local government”.

Mr. Stokfiszewski believes that also the social centers create safe spaces allowing for new social movements to develop strategies for the future, which according to him is highly needed. 

FROM GLOBAL TO LOCAL STRUGGLES – BUT WHY?

According to Mr. Stokfiszewski, the activist movements in Poland have changed from global to more local struggles compared to a century ago: 

 “I think that what has changed is the conservative national governments, which really introduce new dynamics to countries such as Poland in a way that we are dealing with some other issues than in other contexts” – he explains. 

He mentions the outbreak of COVID-19 as another central factor these days including its consequences such as the subsequent closure of the countries and the emerging economic crises. 

At the same time, Mr. Stokfiszewski mentions a campaign in Poland, which is called ‘Don’t call me Murzyn’ or ‘Don’t call me negro’, organized by Polish people of African origin:

“What I found extremely interesting was that it was directly related to Black Lives Matter but the campaign in Poland was really translated into a local context – very efficiently into a local context, which made me think that we should invent a new way to negotiate between local contexts being aware of the fact that most of the struggles and the strongest social movements at the moment are global: anti-racist, feminist and climate movements are absolutely global!” 

Mr. Stokfiszewski believes that the center of the debate should be what he defines as ‘the current challenge to reinvent the international and global perspectives in local struggles’ in response to the right-wing efforts to divide us. It is especially for this reason that he finds projects such as CHAPTER important because they offer the opportunity for activists and experts around the world to gather and share experiences and ideas to broaden our perspectives on how to stay united.

The Polish media outlet Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique) was established in 2002 and aims to push forward the progressive agenda in Poland while demanding a more open and integrated European policy from the Polish elites. Krytyka Polityczna consists of the online “Dziennik Opinii (Opinion Daily), a quarterly magazine, a publishing house, cultural centres in Warsaw, Łódź, Gdańsk and Cieszyn, activist clubs in a dozen cities throughout Poland as well as in Kiev and Berlin and a research centre: the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.

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