The Polish Senate rejected the bill aimed at subjecting judges to new disciplinary procedures for disobeying the government. In its decision, the Senate followed the recommendations by the Venice Commission, which in its opinion harshly criticised the bill as posing a threat to the rule of law in Poland.
Similar view was presented by the European Commission’s College of Commissioners, which last Tuesday decided to request interim measures from the Court of Justice of the EU in order to temporarily suspend the Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Chamber until the CJEU issues its final verdict on its legality.
This was met by another round of vitriolic attacks coming from the ruling camp, with Deputy Minister of Justice defending the bill as aimed at “stopping the anarchy which spreads throughout the judicial system” and President Duda claiming that he will never agree for the Polish laws to be dictated “in foreign languages”.
It appears inevitable that PiS-dominated Sejm will push through the bill despite Senate objections, and President Duda will be all too happy to sign it. This means that any hope at defending the Polish judges from being subject to full political control by the executive remains in the hands of the CJEU and its decision concerning the request for interim measures.
In addition to the ongoing saga concerning judicial independence, we bring you a more sensationalist story in the mold of a classic Hollywood heist movie. The Central Anticorruption Bureau (CBA), the supposedly elite Polish crime-fighting agency, appears to have lost between PLN 10 and 15 mln from its vault in a series of unfortunate events, one of which included a cashier with a raging gambling addiction who successively took out close to PLN 5 mln from the CBA without anyone noticing. As the Bureau is a crown-jewel of PiS’ anticorruption efforts, the scandal might prove embarrassing for the ruling camp.
Finally, we end with an op-ed by Vadim Makarenko, Gazeta Wyborcza's data and tech editor, which exposes the hidden links between the government and the Polish media sector. While the financial support provided by the ruling camp to some of its favourite outlets was well publicised, new revelations show that the clientelist relation based on quid-pro-quos extended to one of the supposedly neutral and objective leading online portal.
Thank you for being with us. There is no freedom without solidarity.
Senate rejects the bill disciplining judges, sends it back to Sejm
The upper chamber of the Polish parliament rejected in full the draconic bill that aims to further limit the independence of the Polish judiciary and questions the applicability of the EU law by in Polish jurisprudence. 51 senators voted in favour of rejecting the bill, while 48 - all belonging to the ruling camp - were against.
The bill will now return to the lower chamber of the parliament - Sejm - and will be discussed during the upcoming session which starts on Thursday. The Senate’s decision can be cast aside by the absolute majority of the MPs. Since PiS has more than enough representatives in the chamber, this scenario appears inevitable. Once the Sejm approves the bill again, the last legislative step remaining for the bill to transform into law will be the President’s signature. As of now, there are no indications that Andrzej Duda considers any scenario other than supporting the bill.
Meanwhile, the Venice Commission issued its opinion on the bill following the request of the Senate’s President Tomasz Grodzki. The constitutional experts assigned by the Council of Europe’s advisory body vehemently criticised the existing draft, stating that it would limit the independence of Polish courts and will threaten the judges with disciplinary sanctions for applying the EU law. In addition, the bill restricts the judges’ freedom of speech and of association.
The opinion by the Venice Commission was met with insolence by President Duda, who is touring the country as part of his re-election efforts. During a meeting with voters, Duda was adamant about his support for the bill. In a highly controversial passage, he played the nationalist card in a thinly veiled attack against the European Commission and the Venice Commission by stating that “We, Poles, have the right to decide about ourselves and our laws on our own. This is why we fought for democracy. Neither our regime nor the way our affairs should be handled will not be imposed on us in foreign languages.”
However, this rhetoric might end up being more as a campaign rallying cry than an actionable political strategy, after the College of Commissioners agreed last Thursday to issue a request to the Court of Justice of the EU for interim measures which would suspend the previous disciplinary law against judges and with it, the Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Chamber. If the CJEU agrees with the European Commission’s plea, the Polish government would face financial fines for every day during which it ignores the ruling.
During the previous conflict between the Commission and the Law and Justice party over the Supreme Court, in Fall 2018, the government stepped down and followed the interim measures introduced by the Court. The decision to go against them this time would mark a new low in the ongoing conflict over the state of the rule of law in Poland.
Prezydent Andrzej Duda podczas spotkania z mieszkańcami Zwolenia, 17.01.2020 Krzysztof Sitkowski/KPRP
Polish anti corruption agency appears to have lost more than PLN 10 mln from its vault
The Central Anticorruption Bureau (CBA), which was founded by the first Law and Justice government in 2006, is the centerpiece of the ruling camp’s constantly underlined platform of clamping down on corruption. Its founder, Mariusz Kamiński, received a presidential pardon from Andrzej Duda in 2015 after he was proven guilty in a ruling concerning abuses of power in his role as the head of the CBA. Since then, Kamiński’s position within the ruling camp only continued to grow, and as a Minister of Internal Affairs and Minister coordinator in charge of secret services, he is among the most powerful PiS politicians.
The financial irregularities at the agency were first reported by Wyborcza in May 2019, when we uncovered that approximately PLN 1 mln was lost during a sting operation as a result of an agency associate disappearing after taking the money that he was supposed to hand over to the suspect.
Following our article, we were contacted by an informer who claimed that the case was just the tip of the iceberg, since the resources belonging to the special, quick-disbursement operational fund were subject to very little oversight and are oftentimes lost without any follow up investigation, with losses amounting to approximately PLN 15 mln.
For long, CBA leadership denied the rumours. However, last week the daily Puls Biznesu ran a story according to which at least PLN 10 mln were discovered as lost from the CBA’s vault last December after an armed truck was supposed to transport the unused operational funds to the bank. The vault, according to the report, was open. The main culprit was a cashier working for the Bureau, who successively removed ever increasing amounts to finance her gambling addiction.
The head of CBA Ernest Bejda accepted the resignations of the department chiefs responsible for finances and for internal security. Bejda himself offered his resignation to Kamiński, but the Minister and ex-CBA director discarded it. The opposition was not kept apprised of the developments happening in the agency and announced that it will demand explanations during the next session of the Sejm’s secret services committee, including ordering a state audit by the National Audit Office (NIK). It is doubtful that the governing party accepts the opposition’s demand, especially given the ongoing conflict with the head of NIK, and former PiS Finance Minister, Marian Banaś.
Ernest Bejda i Mariusz Kamiński Fot. Sławomir Kamiński / Agencja Gazeta
How Polish government makes friends in newsrooms - Op-ed by Vadim Makarenko
OKO.press, the fact-checking website, last week published an investigative story on ties between the Ministry of Justice and Wirtualna Polska, the biggest horizontal portal in Poland. According to OKO.press, Wirtualna Polska has been publishing sponsored materials about the Ministry of Justice since 2018, without labelling them as marketing content.
Wirtualna Polska's newsroom happened to: censor articles about the Minister of Justice; suspend critical articles about the Minister of Justice; and run favourable articles about the Ministry of Justice with fictitious bylines.
A journalist working for Wirtualna Polska confirmed on condition of anonymity that articles about the ministry and the minister himself had to be consulted with the minister's wife who works as a chief marketing officer at Link4 insurance company, owned by the state insurance giant PZU. Head of the Wirtualna Polska's media division, Tomasz Machała, knew about the practice. During the editorial meeting, he allegedly told his staff that the company had "many businesses" with the Ministry of Justice and that he would not "demolish" them, because the staff salaries depended on it.
Initially, Wirtualna Polska labelled the OKO.press story as a collection of "lies, half-truths and slanders". Later the press-office of Wirtualna Polska announced Tomasz Machała is taking leave and denying that such practices ever occurred.
The Polish government uses a financial lever to influence the media. Media outlets supportive of the government receive advertising expenses and grants for developing new services. As for media that present dissenting views (including "Wyborcza"), the no state companies are allowed to buy advertisements in them anymore. This year TVP, the public TV broadcaster is supposed to receive an additional subsidy amounting to around 2 bln PLN (over 470 mln EUR). Tadeusz Kowalski, a media scholar at the University of Warsaw, has shown that the main beneficiaries of government’s largesse are pro-government titles such as Gazeta Polska, Sieci, and Do Rzeczy. For them, state-related revenues account for 45%, 40%, and 23% of total ad revenues, respectively.
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We need to show solidarity, or else no one will stand in protest when the authoritarian power comes after you, after me, after us. We need to stand with those who are beaten, not those who beat them.
Authoritarian states flourish not when bad people do bad things but when good people allow them.
Today we are asking fellow Poles and our friends abroad to join the movement of people of solidarity. Your position gives you the right to speak out loud when others are being hurt. We do not have an army to defend ourselves, but we have words that can help those who are being harassed. Your voice is valuable because it can open the eyes of those who still prefer to turn their heads and remain silent. Now is the time to call things by their names. Let us speak the truth about the situation of free Poles in their own country. Let us remember that there is no freedom without solidarity.