Poland: a backslide in media freedom

Guest blog by Dominika Bychawska-Siniarska, member of HFHR Board. MLDI has been working with HFHR since 2015 provide legal defence to journalists, bloggers and independent media in Poland.

The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR) has been operating for 27 years and is the biggest human rights NGO working in Poland and the post-soviet region. In our work we focus on education, advocacy and monitoring, and human rights litigation. In response to a dispersed and divided media environment in Poland, we have been running a project devoted to freedom of the press since 2008. Within the project we conducted litigation activities and campaigns advocating for freedom of expression. One of these campaigns focused on the need to decriminalise defamation, and some of the largest media outlets and journalistic associations in Poland joined the campaign. The HFHR media freedom project continuously supports journalists and bloggers via litigation and we continue to respond to emerging challenges and the changing media environment.

Since the creation of the media programme within HFHR we have witnessed a gradual improvement of the situation for media in Poland, as recorded by international organisations such as Reporters without Borders. In 2015 Poland was ranked 15th in the World Press Freedom Index – the highest position it has held. However, since then we have faced a backslide, reflected in Poland’s fall in the World Press Freedom Index to the 58th position, one of the worst among EU states.

Such a low ranking is particularly due to legal changes introduced by the right-wing Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) which led to a political takeover of public media[1]. More than 200 key journalists and editors were dismissed just within a couple of months, without justification or compensation (such as in the cases of Kamil Dąbrowa and Jerzy Sosnowski, both prominent journalists with the public radio broadcaster[2]). This left public media without an institutional memory and paved the way for further political influence of media programing. Currently the selection of public media’s management and supervisory boards is in the hands of the National Media Council, a body composed of active politicians. The political influence on the public media reveals itself in ways such as organised smear campaigns against opposition politicians and liberal NGOs[3].

Meanwhile access to public institutions such as the parliament or the Constitutional Court is another hurdle for critical journalists. The Speaker of the Sejm (the lower chamber of Poland’s parliament) issued an order in December 2016 so that only certain journalists received a permanent entrance card, valid for up to one year[4]. All other journalists (mostly those critical of the current government) need to request an entrance permit every time they need to follow parliamentary proceedings in the course of their work. It is common practice to deny permits to critical journalists, even when they identify themselves with press cards (for example in the case of Ewa Siedlecka from Oko Press).

The President of the Constitutional Court decided in January 2017, to bar journalists (particularly those having cameras and recording devices) from every hearing. The press have been relegated to a special press room where they can watch the Constitutional Court hearings on monitor screens. Similarly, journalists were deprived of access to the first plenary meeting of the newly restructured and controversial National Judiciary Council. They were told that they can watch the meeting at an official broadcast instead. Such practices violate constitutional provisions, guaranteeing free access to information (article 54 of the Constitution)[5].

Independent journalists regularly report a lack of access to government officials and that they have been denied interviews. Sometimes government politicians even boast about not speaking with critical news outlets, making it harder for newspapers viewed as opposition-aligned to access information[6]. Although not perfect, the 2001 Act on Access to Public Information[7] started to be fully operational in Poland and officials became accustomed to it. The Act introduced the right to seek information from public bodies and obliged state bodies and state-funded bodies to provide such information when requested. Today, however, the way the law is applied has changed and critical journalists once again face problems obtaining information. In extreme cases critical media outlets have been systemically banned from obtaining requested information (e.g. Gazeta Wyborcza)[8].

Another dangerous tendency we have observed at HFHR is ‘state machinery’ being used for the purposes of protecting the reputations of particular officials. The most prominent example is the case of Wojciech Czuchnowski, editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, who is under investigation for insult of a constitutional body, after publishing a series of articles examining links between top judges of the Constitutional Tribunal and intelligence agencies[9]. In some isolated cases, journalists are targeted with severe charges such as espionage – in the case of one Newsweek Polska reporter – in order to deter them from reporting on specific topics. In an increasing number of cases, state institutions’ resources (such as their legal departments or outsourced legal teams) are being used to sue for the personal protection of particular officials.

Besides the new legal challenges, there are some long-lasting and unresolved issues around the criminalisation of defamation and the ‘chilling effect’ of using legal proceedings against journalists, particularly at a local level. Usually legal proceedings, particularly around defamation, are used more frequently by officials during elections.

 

[1] Detailed analysis of the amendements is available in Article 19 and HFHR common report, available at: https://www.article19.org/resources/poland-independence-of-public-service-media/

[2] HFHR was engaged in J. Sosnowski,  T. Zimoch and K. Dąbrowa cases. HFHR authored a number of legal opinions on draft laws relating to amendments in the Public Media Act and reports for international audience.

[3] Letter against attacks of the public TV on the NGO sector: http://wiadomosci.ngo.pl/wiadomosc/2001353.html

[4] The HFHR issued a number of statements to the authorities in relations to such practices.

[5] ”Preventive censorship of the means of social communication and the licensing of the press shall be prohibited.” – Article 54 of the Constitution of the Republic of Poland. http://www.sejm.gov.pl/prawo/konst/angielski/kon1.htm

[6] Interview of the author with the editor in Chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, September 2018.

[7] http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/unpan/unpan034035.pdf

[8] E.g. Article on the lack of access of information about security services: http://prawo.gazetaprawna.pl/artykuly/1011078,dostep-do-infarmacji-jawnosc.html

[9] D. Bychawska-Siniarska, Criticizing the new President of the Polish Constitutional Court: A Crime against the State?

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