Since coming to power in 2015, Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) has effectively been attempting to silence dissent and muzzle the media. According to a damning report by independent watchdog Freedom House, ‘Pluralism Under Attack: The Assault on Press Freedom in Poland’, PiS’s decision to replace the heads of the public broadcaster in early 2016 has led to news coverage growing more partisan. Foreign-owned outlets based in Poland are often critical of the current government. As a result, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński is now calling for the media to be ‘repolonized’. Freedom House and other human rights groups believe that this hardline approach to media freedom is causing increasing political polarisation in Poland.
Dorota Bawołek, a respected Polish journalist working in Brussels for the privately owned television channel Polsat, was targeted by hundreds of threatening messages on social media after the state-controlled TVP, now a mouthpiece for PiS, claimed she had asked the European Commission politically motivated questions that aimed ‘to harm Poland’. At a press conference on 13 July this year, Bawołek asked the Commission to respond to the Polish Parliament’s decision to adopt a draft law that would reduce the independence and impartiality of the judiciary and the Supreme Court. She went on to question the Commission’s readiness to make statements about the UK, a country leaving the EU, rather than about Poland, an existing member, and suggested that if members refused to comment on the decline of press freedom in Poland, the country ‘will also be at risk of leaving’.
TVP referred to Bawołek’s questions as ‘provocations’. It shared the footage of her remarks widely on social media, where the journalist was called a ‘traitor’, ‘prostitute’ and ‘anti-Polish manipulator’. Some internet users even suggested ‘shaving her head’ or ‘hanging her’. Polsat was subsequently labelled a ‘traitor of the Polish nation’ and there have been calls for its immediate closure and for the establishment of a list of ‘traitors’.
Just as worrying is the case brought against Polish investigative journalist Tomasz Piątek, who faces potential criminal charges for his book Macierewicz i jego tajemnice (‘Macierewicz and His Secrets’), which was published in June this year. The book examines the political and financial links between defence minister Antoni Macierewicz’s aides and the Russian military intelligence services. Shortly after its publication, Macierewicz filed a criminal complaint against Piątek, claiming that he had violated Articles 224, 226 and 231a of the Criminal Code by ‘using violence or making an unlawful threat that affects a government authority performing its duty’ and ‘insulting a public official in the course and in connection with the performance of their duties’.
Piątek was born in Pruszków, on the outskirts of Warsaw, in 1974. He writes for some of Poland’s leading media outlets and newspapers; his work has also been published by Italian and American news outlets. He has written nineteen books, mostly fiction, some of which have been translated into Spanish, Italian and Russian. In 2009, he was nominated for the European Union Prize for Literature for his novel Pałac Ostrogskich (‘Ostrogski Palace’).
Amnesty, PEN and Reporters without Borders are all concerned that Piątek’s case is being investigated by a military court. On 11 July this year, a spokesperson for the military department of the Office of the Prosecutor General confirmed that it is examining the case, though the grounds for prosecution are still unclear. The spokesperson offered no further explanation as to how Piątek’s book is in breach of the criminal code. Under international law, as elucidated in ‘Draft Principles Governing the Administration of Justice Through Military Tribunals’ (better known as the ‘Decaux Principles’), military courts do not have the jurisdiction to try civilians. States are obliged to ensure that civilians accused of a criminal offence of any nature are tried by civilian courts. If Piątek is found guilty, he faces up to three years in prison.
PEN believes that the case against Piątek provides further evidence that Poland’s current government is using legislative, political and economic pressure to stifle the media and limit dissent and debate within the country.
Readers may like to send appeals calling on the Polish authorities to immediately drop the case against Piątek and any criminal charges related to his book and work as an investigative journalist; urging the Polish government to respect the right to freedom of expression in the country, as guaranteed by Article 54 of the Constitution of Poland, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and seeking assurances that journalists be allowed to carry out their legitimate activities without fear of reprisals.
Appeals to be addressed to:
Minister of Justice and Prosecutor General Zbigniew Ziobro
ul Rakowiecka 26/30
His Excellency Arkady Rzegocki
The Embassy of the Republic of Poland
47 Portland Place
London W1B 1JH
Fax: + 44 (0) 207 291 3575