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The Society of Journalists is monitoring and analyzing legal repressions against journalists by politicians, secret service apparatus, state-owned companies, and other state institutions. These hostile actions are intended to have a chilling effect - to encourage self-censorship and to dissuade journalists from pursuing difficult but socially important topics as part of their investigative reporting. In extreme cases, such repressions can lead to dismissal or termination of cooperation with a journalist whose articles generate legal repercussions, such as lawsuits.
Sued journalists are forced to present lengthy explanations as well as appear for questioning in prosecutors' offices or courts. They are often required to waive journalistic confidentiality. Therefore, even if a lawsuit or a report concerns only the editorial office or publisher, and not any specific journalist, information about these proceedings is included in our monitoring exercise.
In the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom ranking for 2021, Poland has dropped to 64th place. In 2015, Polish press sector was ranked as the 18th best in terms of freedom out of 180 countries. In 2016, the first year after the Law and Justice came to power, Poland saw a precipitous decline - it was overtaken by 29 countries, and ranked 47th. The decline in press freedom continued ever since, as Poland was downgraded seven consecutive times.
Since 2015, we have been observing increasing attacks on those media that are independent from the ruling camp. Until now, however, there was no comprehensive study that would have presented the scale of the continuing assault. Our monitoring exercise is an attempt at filling this void. As part of it, we try to answer the following questions:
- who are the "worst offenders" in terms of legal attacks on journalists and the media;
- what are the typical forms of legal repression;
- Which outlets and journalists are targeted most often;
- what were the outcomes of the cases;
- whether some of the attempts at legal repression in Poland can be considered to constitute Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs).
Who are the "worst offenders" in terms of legal attacks on journalists and the media?
Out of 187 legal actions that we have identified, most were brought by:
41 - public institutions (prosecutor’s office- 14, police - 10, Poland’s central bank - 4, Ministry of Culture - 2, Poland’s financial markets regulator - 2, Military Police - 2);
26 - State-owned companies - 23, including Polish state TV broadcaster - 9, Polish Security Printing Works - 4, Polish airports - 3, Polish Armaments Group- 3, KGHM Polska Miedź S.A. - 2, Polish railways - 2; plus the Polish National Foundation established by State-owned companies - 3;
26 - relatives and associates of politicians;
18 - public officials (most often the Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro - 5, President of the Supreme Audit Office - 2, President of the Constitutional Tribunal - 1);
15 - judges (appointed by the current government);
6 - prosecutors (Attorney General Zbigniew Ziobro - 2, other prosecutors - 4);
3 - Law and Justice party.
Which outlets are being sued most often?
- 73 - "Gazeta Wyborcza";
- 39 - Ringier Axel Springer (RASP) media outlets: 21 - Onet, 10 - "Newsweek", 8 - "Fakt", 1 - Business Insider;
- 16 - OKO.press;
- 9 - Polityka weekly;
- 6 - TVN.
Most attacks are directed against "Gazeta Wyborcza" and its journalists, but this may be due to the fact that the editorial staff openly reports them. Recently, RASP reported that since 2016 it has received a total of 96 lawsuits from politicians and officials of the ruling camp and state institutions, including 79 civil and 17 criminal ones. There are fewer cases against RASP on our record because we only included those about which there was public information available.
The number of actions against TVN (private TV broadcaster owned by Discovery, inc.) journalists is underestimated - our list includes only publicly available information about the most egregious attacks on reporters working for the broadcaster.
What kind of cases are being brought against journalists?
- 75 civil cases for violation of personal rights;
- 37 civil cases for rectification;
- 58 criminal cases, including 25 cases under Article 212 of the Criminal Code (defamation), 2 cases under Article 226 of the Criminal Code (insulting a constitutional body), 1 case under Article 224 of the Criminal Code (influencing official actions), 1 under Article 256 of the Criminal Code (propagating fascism), 2 under the Misdemeanor Code, and 2 cases concerning the lifting of journalistic secrecy;
- 17 incidents such as detention, requests for additional identification and questioning of the press IDs, and other actions obstructing the work of journalists.
The number of criminal cases is alarming. As many as 25 are pending under article 212 of the Criminal Code. The article has been criticized for years by journalistic bodies, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and international organizations as posing a serious threat to freedom of speech, with numerous calls for its immediate repeal. It provides for a punishment of up to one year in prison for slander through the mass media. Organizations defending freedom of speech believe that in this case the civil law and press law provide sufficient legal protection for potential victims.
At least 66 attacks on journalists qualify as SLAPPs (see examples below)
We treated the most egregious legal attacks as SLAPPs. SLAPPs are a form of harassment and intimidation of critical authors with an intent of forcing them into silence. They hurt not only journalists and their editorial offices, but also, and above all, the public's right to information about abuses of the authorities or powerful corporations; in Poland's case, especially state-owned companies.
We evaluated as SLAPPs the most onerous and threatening actions, such as:
- notifications to the prosecutor's office concerning defamation (Article 212 of the Criminal Code);
- the procedure of multiplication of lawsuits in one case;
- actions against the attorneys of the editorial offices and journalists (e.g. initiating disciplinary proceedings against them) or the judges presiding over the proceedings (e.g. attempts to exclude them from the bench or even to report them to the prosecutor's office);
- attempts to intimidate journalistic sources with retaliatory lawsuits (e.g. the National Prosecutor's Office filed a lawsuit demanding PLN 250,000 against prosecutor Katarzyna Kwiatkowska, head of the Lex Super Omnia association fighting for the apolitical nature of the prosecutor's office, for her interview in Wyborcza).
We hope that the SLAPP attacks identified by us will become a starting point for a discussion on introducing legal solutions in Poland and the European Union that will limit this growing phenomenon. We also hope for a discussion among the legal community about SLAPP practices and an ethical evaluation of the involvement of professional attorneys in such attacks.
Example #1: Legal actions brought by judges who owe their careers to the current ruling camp
After coming to power in 2015, one of the main priorities of the Law and Justice-led government was to promote a new cadre of judges and prosecutors loyal to its agenda. They were fast-tracked through the court ranks, delegated to the Ministry of Justice, or appointed to the government-controlled bodies such as the National Council of the Judiciary, Constitutional Tribunal and the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court. Traditionally, Polish judges did not engage in legal conflicts with the press. This, however, changed as the new cohort of government loyalists ascended through the judicial ranks. Many of the newly promoted judges and prosecutors routinely harass the media for critical publications and for exposing their misconduct. Their weapon of choice are lawsuits under article 212 of the Criminal Code, as well as civil suits for infringement of personal rights.
"Gazeta Wyborcza '' and Onet.pl (RASP) face multiple lawsuits for their publications on the so-called "haters’ affair". Journalists at both outlets uncovered an elaborate scheme developed by judges associated with the Ministry of Justice aimed at besmirching those judges who refuse to toe the party line. The journalists who were sued include Magdalena Gałczyńska from Onet.pl, the journalist who uncovered the troll farm coordinated at the Ministry of Justice and was awarded the Grand Press prize (the Polish equivalent of the Pulitzer Award). The highest ranked official involved in the "haters’ affair", former deputy minister of justice Judge Lukasz Piebiak,brought a civil suit against Bartosz Węglarczyk, the editor-in-chief of Onet.pl.
Judges involved in the scandal have also sued "Wyborcza". Konrad Wytrykowski, one of the judges of the Disciplinary Chamber, requested the exclusion from the case of a judge from the independent Judges Association "Iustitia" (without success). He also filed a notice of complaint to the Disciplinary Office against the attorney of "Wyborcza".
Judges associated with the ruling camp engage in brazen harassment actions. According to the pro-government portal wPolityce.pl, Judge Tomasz Szmydt filed a notice with the CBA (the anti-corruption agency fully controlled by the government) against Ewa Ivanova, a journalist from "Gazeta Wyborcza", regarding benefits - "not necessarily financial" - that judges allegedly received from her in exchange for information.
Ewa Siedlecka of the Polityka weekly was also targeted by judges with close ties to the ruling camp. One of the lawsuits against her was initiated by Przemysław Radzik under Article 212 of the Criminal Code. A civil suit against her was filed by Konrad Wytrykowski and Maciej Nawacki from the National Council of the Judiciary, as well as by the president of a district court appointed by the Minister of Justice.
Anna Mierzyńska, an Internet analyst cooperating with OKO.press, is being prosecuted on private charges under Article 212 of the Criminal Code by Maciej Nawacki and Konrad Wytrykowski. A similar action was initiated by Wytrykowski against Piotr Pacewicz, Editor-in-Chief of OKO.press.
The judges are often represented in court by lawyers from the extreme Catholic organization Ordo Iuris. In the ranking of CASE (a coalition of NGOs from Europe fighting against SLAPP) Ordo Iuris was classified as "Bully Lawyers", i.e. "legal aggressors". These are lawyers or legal organizations that use the most offensive and harassing strategies on behalf of their clients.
Example #2: Attacks by the ruling Law and Justice party and Jarosław Kaczyński
The Law and Justice party has taken three legal actions against Wyborcza, and its chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski brought two additional lawsuits. These include both civil proceedings for infringement of personal interests and criminal cases under Article 212 of the Criminal Code (defamation).
The most famous case concerned the commentary by Wojciech Czuchnowski on the "mafia state of Law and Justice", in which he discussed the pardoning of the heads of special services by President Andrzej Duda at the onset of Law and Justice rule. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and ended up in favor of "Wyborcza".
A civil case for infringement of personal rights was initiated by the Law and Justice party against "Wyborcza" concerning the articles written by Czuchnowski and Iwona Szpala on the plans of the Srebrna company (connected with the Law and Justice party) to build two skyscrapers in Warsaw. The party lost in both court instances.
Another point of contention concerned an article about the pressure put by PiS politicians on Andrzej Seremet, the prosecutor general dismissed by the ruling camp in 2016. As described by three female journalists of "Wyborcza": Ewa Ivanova, Agata Kondzińska and Iwona Szpala, Law and Justice politicians insisted that Seremet should file a cassation appeal in cases affecting the trial of Daniel Obajtek, Kaczyński's long-time protégé and the current CEO of PKN Orlen, a state-owned oil giant. The journalists received a pre-litigation summons.
The Law and Justice party announced analogous legal action against Bianka Mikołajewska from OKO.press for making remarks on Twitter concerning the aforementioned article.
Two cases were initiated by the chairman of PiS himself. The civil case concerned articles about the so-called Kaczyński tapes. The criminal one concerned investigative pieces about the aforementioned plans to build two skyscrapers by the Srebrna company using political influence to change zoning plans. Kaczyński submitted a notification to the prosecutor's office under Article 212 of the Criminal Code, but the Warsaw district prosecutor's office refused to initiate the proceedings.
Example #3: Legal actions brought by officials associated with the Ministry of Justice and the Attorney General’s office
The officials working for Zbigniew Ziobro, the Minister of Justice and the Prosecutor General, engage in legal assault on the media on a very regular basis. This includes Deputy Ministers from Solidarna Polska (a small coalition party led by Ziobro), deputy Minister of Justice Sebastian Kaleta, the former Minister of Environment Michał Woś, and attorney Maciej Zaborowski, who not only represents Minister Ziobro and his colleagues, but also himself initiates legal actions against journalists for articles covering his remarkable career under the current government.
Ziobro and his associates specialize in artificially multiplying legal actions. For one article concerning the registry of paedophiles, 'Gazeta Wyborcza' received as many as six lawsuits - some were brought by Zbigniew Ziobro, some by the Treasury/Minister of Justice (i.e. Ziobro again) and some by the Deputy Minister Kaleta.
Sebastian Kaleta also sued Onet.pl for an article about the questionable methods used by a PR agency connected with Andrzej Duda and the ruling camp. In February 2021, the court ruled in favor of Onet.pl.
Zbigniew Ziobro is extremely sensitive to critical publications about him and holds the record in terms of the number of legal actions initiated. He sometimes acts as an individual person, sometimes as the Minister of Justice, and other times as the Prosecutor General. Ten of his legal actions made it to our registry. These are all requests for rectification, but we categorize them as SLAPPs due to the practice of multiplying proceedings concerning one article (the above mentioned piece about the register of paedophiles in "Wyborcza").
The Minister of Justice is famous for his absurd requests for corrections in cases brought against him by Beata Morawiec, a judge from Kraków known for her refusal to rule in line with the government’s expectations. When writing about the lawsuits, the media often write "Ziobro lost", instead of "the State - the Minister of Justice lost". Ziobro insists, however, that the defendant was the State, he was not a party to the lawsuit, which means that he could not lose it and does not have to apologize to Morawiec. Some media published corrections to avoid litigation (e.g. Radio ZET, "Rzeczpospolita").
Rather surprisingly, journalists are also facing lawsuits brought by Maciej Zaborowski, attorney for the Minister of Justice and Attorney General, in his personal capacity. He demands a correction of the article in "Gazeta Wyborcza" by Ewa Ivanova, entitled "Lawyer for Obajtek, Ziobro and Orlen. How attorney Zaborowski benefits from the rule of Law and Justice'". Among other things, he demands the rectification of data taken from the National Court Register concerning his past on the supervisory boards of state-owned companies PZU and PKP Intercity; as well as data from the official reports of the aforementioned companies on his earnings as a member of supervisory boards.
Furthermore, Zaborowski and Ziobro do not want the media to bring attention to the ethical problem arising from the fact that many lawsuits in which Zaborowski is involved are given to judges delegated from lower to higher courts. They are under great pressure - Ziobro has absolute discretionary power to withdraw them from their favorable delegation.
Example #4: Legal actions by the State Broadcaster TVP and the Polish Journalists Association
Poland’s state broadcaster TVP, controlled by a close ally and former politician of the ruling Law and Justice party Jacek Kurski, launched nine legal actions against journalists, including several civil suits. It is an example of a publically-funded medium attempting to silence critical voices through legal actions that is unprecedented in scale.
TVP has brought private charges under Article 212 of the Polish Criminal Code (defamation) against Renata Grochal of Newsweek (Ringier Axel Springer Polska), Ewa Siedlecka of Polityka and Wojciech Czuchnowski of "Gazeta Wyborcza". The case concerned opinion pieces and commentaries on the fact that Stefan W., who murdered the Mayor of Gdańsk Paweł Adamowicz, could have been persuaded to commit the crime by watching national television while being in prison. TVP lost all three cases in court.
TVP brought a number of civil suits against "Wyborcza" for, among others, articles about the state broadcaster’s massive expenditure on the organization of various events. Some of the claims are requests for rectification, while others relate to an alleged infringement of personal rights of the state-owned media corporation.
TVP has also sued Wojciech Cieśla of Newsweek. His articles discussed the public broadcaster’s declining viewership and the fact that several of its prominent journalists decided to quit.
Barbara Burdzy of the daily "Fakt" (Ringier Axel Springer Polska) was sued by TVP for her article concerning the dismissal of an employee for allegedly letting the band Girls on Fire (whose message did not fit well with the ruling camp’s party line) participate in a broadcasted concert. The journalist had previously worked for the broadcaster’s web portal TVP.info and was fired for publishing an article on the former Minister of Defence Antoni Macierewicz on the news site Wirtualna Polska.
Another curious case is the lawsuit filed by the Polish Journalists Association (SDP) regarding an opinion piece entitled "The Polish Informants’ Association" published by Wojciech Czuchnowski of "Wyborcza". In it, the journalist criticized the association for how it treated the authors of a documentary on Polish neo-Nazis aired on the private television broadcaster TVN. The association sent a letter to the editor-in-chief of TVN asking, among other things, about the journalists’ professional qualifications and the reason for postponing the material’s release date for several months. According to Mr Czuchnowski, the questions contained "a vile imputation that the journalists have »concealed something« and »held something back«".
It is both shocking and unheard of that an organization claiming to represent journalists responds to criticism by attempting to limit the freedom of speech. In the lawsuit against the publisher of "Wyborcza", the association demands the publication of an apology, the removal of the opinion piece from its website, and compensation of PLN 50.000.
Example #5: Attacks based on article 212 of the Polish Criminal Code; allegations of other crimes or offenses
Today, Polish journalists not only have to deal with civil lawsuits but are also a frequent target of criminal charges brought by public prosecutors subordinate to the Minister of Justice and Prosecutor General Zbigniew Ziobro. Most of these attacks are based on article 212 of the Criminal Code, which provides for a prison sentence of up to one year for the crime of defamation. The leader of the ruling Law and Justice party, for instance, filed a criminal complaint against "Wyborcza" journalists for alleged libel. The public broadcaster, too, filed charges under article 212 against several journalists.
While criminal defamation lawsuits are initiated by either private individuals or organizations, the District Prosecutor's Office in Radom is pursuing defamation cases ex officio. It was prompted to do so by the heads of the Polish Security Printing Works, who accused Michał Krzymowski of "Newsweek" of violating their personal rights.
One of the most recent cases in this context is the criminal complaint filed by the public relations agency R4S (which offers its services to many individuals and entities with close ties to the ruling camp) against "Gazeta Wyborcza", OKO.press, and the Reporters Foundation. According to the agency's own statement, the reason for filing the complaint was not even an article that has already been published, but rather some questions the agency received from the journalists earlier. The charges concern an alleged act of defamation and unfair competition. The agency claims that journalists have asked these questions with an intention to undermine the public’s trust in R4S.
In theory, many of these cases ended favorably for the journalists - e.g., no charges were filed, the investigation was discontinued, or charges were dropped. But the chilling effect lies precisely in the awareness that one can be attacked at any given moment, and it seriously hinders journalists' ability to keep politicians and the institutions they control in check.
But charges under article 212 are not the only criminal allegations journalists have to fend off. Wojciech Czuchnowski of "Wyborcza", for example, has been accused of "publicly insulting a constitutional authority" under Article 226 of the Criminal Code. The journalist wrote that the president of the Constitutional Tribunal Julia Przyłębska and her deputy Mariusz Muszyński have been "installed at the Tribunal by the intelligence services to serve the interests of the ruling camp". The criminal complaint was filed by Julia Przyłębska. The investigation, however, was discontinued.
In 2017, the Ministry of National Defence, headed at that time by Antoni Macierewicz, brought a complaint against Tomasz Piątek, the author of the book "Macierewicz and his secrets". The criminal complaint invoked Article 224 § 2 of the Criminal Code stating that "whoever uses violence or an illegal threat with the purpose of forcing a public official or a person called upon to assist him to abstain from a lawful official activity" can be sentenced to three years in prison. Mr Piątek was also to be prosecuted for "publicly insulting a constitutional authority of the Republic of Poland" under Article 226 of the Criminal Code. Yet, in March 2018, the Warsaw Regional Prosecutor's Office declined to investigate the case.
Legal actions against Bertold Kittel, Anna Sobolewska, and Piotr Wacowski, the authors of the documentary about Polish neo-Nazis aired on TVN, are another example of using SLAPP suits to target journalists. Their undercover reporting has been recognized with multiple awards, including the Grand Press award. As part of the reportage, the cameraman, Piotr Wacowski, infiltrated a group of neo-Nazis and participated in their celebration of Adolf Hitler’s birthday. After a pro-government web portal published pictures showing him make a Nazi salute during the event, Mr Wacowski was called for questioning for his alleged incitement to Nazism (article 256 § 1 of the Criminal Code). When the case was revealed by the media, the National Prosecutor's Office withdrew the call for questioning. The prosecution discontinued the investigation at the end of February 2019.
Mr Wacowski and Mr Kittel were also subjected to other types of harassment. The Katowice unit of the Internal Security Agency ABW (intelligence agency) opened an investigation into a petty offense the two reporters have allegedly committed by not paying PLN 54.50 for a cab ride in Wodzisław Śląski. However, it later turned out that on the days indicated by the cab drivers, Piotr Wacowski and Bertold Kittel were somewhere else. Andrzej Stróżny, who then headed the Katowice unit of the Internal Security Agency, now commands Poland’s main anti-corruption agency subordinated to the ruling Law and Justice party.
Compensation claims worth millions of zlotys
Some civil suits for infringement of personal rights involve high compensation claims. In this regard, the most prominent example is the recent case of the R4S agency which announced that is was suing journalists of "Wyborcza", OKO.press, and the Reporters Foundation for PLN 1 million (it is unclear whether the request for compensation refers to all journalists collectively or each author separately) and demanding that their assets be frozen. Such claims are supposed to have a chilling effect and discourage journalists from taking up controversial topics.
Another example concerns a piece from February 2020 written by Edyta Żemła and Marcin Wyrwał of Onet.pl. The journalists described the case of the Polish army using faulty Grot rifles which violated approval procedures for new weapons. The Radom Firearms Factory "Łucznik" accused the authors of being dishonest and demanded an apology and compensation worth PLN 1 million.
The Father Piotr Skarga Institute for Social and Religious Education sued "Wyborcza" and Tomasz Piątek for a series of articles on the ultraconservative organization Ordo Iuris published in 2017, demanding compensation of PLN 200.000. The Father Piotr Skarga Association for Christian Culture (in theory a different and separate entity) demands the same amount of money for the exact same reason.
Citing an alleged infringement of his personal rights, the Disciplinary Chamber judge Konrad Wytrykowski sued the author of an article about a troll farm ran by the Ministry of Justice, Magdalena Gałczyńska of Onet.pl, for PLN 100.000. He also demands compensation of PLN 105.000 from Agora SA (the publisher of "Gazeta Wyborcza") for publishing a piece on the "haters’ affair".
Robert Szustkowski, a businessman suing Grzegorz Rzeczkowski of "Polityka", demands an official apology and a retraction of an already published article. On top of that, Mr Szustowski asks that the journalist donate PLN 500.000 to a foundation of his choice. The article in question concerns a key figure of the 2014 wiretapping scandal, Marek Falenta, and his relations with the Russian Kuzbass Energy Company (KTK). The author revealed that Mr Falenta’s connection to Russia was in fact the businessman Robert Szustkowski.
For an allegedly harmful series of articles from 2016 concerning legal actions against journalists, the Polish Security Printing Works demanded that in terms of compensation Agora pay PLN 100.000 for a social cause. The case was dismissed in court in February 2018. In a different lawsuit, the Polish Security Printing Works demanded PLN 50.000 in damages from "Wyborcza". The case was dismissed as well.
A lawsuit against Agora and Dominika Wielowieyska filed by the Polish Central Bank ended rather surprisingly. While initially demanding compensation of PLN 200.000 for an article published by "Wyborcza", the bank withdrew both its claims and all charges in December 2020.
Policing journalists: ID checks, detention, interrogation
Interrogation by the police or prosecutors and efforts to obstruct reporting through arrests constitute a separate category of pressuring journalists with the aim to create a chilling effect. There are 27 such cases on our list.
In December 2018, the police came to the homes of journalist Robert Kowalski and an OKO.press camera operator demanding video footage potentially relevant to an investigation concerning an alleged insult to the Russian flag. Due to the reporter’s privilege, journalists are allowed to refuse to hand over such materials. The police later claimed they were not aware that the footage might have contained confidential content.
Journalists in Poland cannot rely on police protection during large gatherings and demonstrations. Police officers fail to understand the public watchdog function of the media during protests. Many journalists report that press pass badges even trigger the police to act more aggressively.
Pawel Rutkiewicz, a journalist of "Wyborcza", was detained during a protest of business owners on May 8, 2020. Even though he did not resist and showed his press ID, he was transported with other detainees outside Warsaw to Wołomin and held in a police van for an hour without being able to contact the editorial office.
Despite showing his press ID during the Women's Strike protest on November 18, 2020, Onet.pl journalist Marcin Terlik has been charged with violating Article 54 of the Code of Petty Offences with regards to the October Covid-19 ban on assembly. The police may refer his case to the court and the sanitary inspectorate with a request for an administrative fine.
During the Youth Climate Strike demonstration in Kraków on December 9, 2020, photojournalist Konstancja Nowina-Konopka was asked to show her ID when she tried to document the police pulling demonstrators from the crowd. She told police officers she was at work, making sure they wrote it down. Yet, a few days later, police officers called her for questioning. No charges were brought against her.
When hundreds of coronavirus deniers and anti-vaxxers took to the streets of Warsaw on March 20, 2021, to protest the pandemic-induced restrictions, the police did not allow OKO.press reporter Maciej Piasecki to get close to the protestors, even though they had agreed (as evidenced by the video footage) to reveal their data. A few days earlier, the police refused to let the same reporter through a cordon in front of the Constitutional Tribunal and prevented him and other journalists from documenting the conversations between police officers and the protesters.
When Angelika Pitoń, a journalist of the Kraków edition of "Wyborcza", was covering the Women's Strike protest in Zakopane in early November 2020, two police officers started to question her. A few days later, she was summoned for a police interrogation, where she was charged with using obscene words and not wearing a face mask in public. The case was later dropped in court.
Journalists v. state-funded media
Our probe also includes labor law-related disputes initiated by public media journalists. These disputes arose when new authorities took the reins of the public broadcasting services and transformed them into a propaganda mouthpiece of the ruling party.
In line with the recommendations of the Council of Europe (http://www.archiwum.krrit.gov.pl/regulacje-prawne/rada-europy/) and the European Court of Human Rights' rulings (Wojtas-Kaleta vs. Poland no. 20436/02, Manole vs. Moldova no. 13936/02), the Polish Constitution and codes of media ethics guarantee the impartiality of public media.
For this reason, we decided to also consider some of the journalists’ labor law disputes as a sign of struggle for media independence and freedom of speech. Such disputes are yet another type of journalist harassment, and because it comes from the employer, it is all the more severe.
According to the Polish Society of Journalists, at least 235 people were fired or forced to leave the public media in the first years after the Law and Justice party came to power. Only a small fraction decided to seek justice in court. We have included all 16 cases in our list. Seven of them have already ended favorably for the journalists; a settlement was reached in five cases; three are still pending, and one was lost. Most of the lawsuits concern the termination of employment.
One of the longest-running disputes is the case of Kamil Dąbrowa. It has not been resolved for five years. The head of Channel 1 of the Polish Public Radio was first dismissed from his post and then fired because he initiated an action of playing the Polish and EU anthems on air as a show of opposition to the changes in public broadcasting services introduced by the new government.
In the trials of Tomasz Zimoch and Jerzy Sosnowski, the courts not only sided with both journalists but also confirmed that they could criticize their employer for the changes imposed on the editorial offices.
The trials of Grażyna Bochenek and Dorota Nygren concern the mode of journalistic work. In the case of Ms Bochenek, the radio station had to admit that it unlawfully reprimanded her for airing a listener's statement calling the President of Poland a "straw man." Dorota Nygren sued her employer for discrimination. She was demoted when she refused to disclose the nationality of a criminal suspect. The case is likely to end in the Supreme Court.
Legal actions against journalists: Round-up
A significant number of cases on our list - 72 out of 187 - ended favorably for the journalists. It means that the journalist either won in court, the prosecution refused to initiate proceedings, the case was dismissed, or the lawsuit was never filed. The largest number of cases - 91 - are still pending or need to be updated, i.e. they have been publicly announced but there have been no further developments. Journalists lost 11 cases, while 8 cases ended in a settlement.
About the report: scope of research, methodology, sources, and aim
The types of cases we chose to consider in the report have the character of retaliation or pressure exerted on the media or journalists, i.e. examples of legal actions on the part of state authorities in the broad sense of the term, as well as people and entities associated with them (e.g. state-owned companies). They are cases with a noticeable disproportion of power between the journalist and the attacker.
In total, there are 187 cases on our list concerning:
- Criminal law: criminal charges (under the infamous Article 212 of the Criminal Code - defamation, Article 226 of the Criminal Code - insulting a constitutional authority, Article 224 of the Criminal Code - extortion of official acts), misdemeanor charges, attempts to violate source confidentiality, detention of reporters, harassing interrogation;
- Civil law: proceedings for infringement of personal rights, demands for rectification;
- Pre-litigation summons under threat of legal action (without a filed lawsuit or criminal complaint);
- Labor law-related disputes: dismissal or discrimination of journalists (16 cases on the list).
In instances when legal actions affected journalists from several newsrooms conducting, for example, a joint investigation, we reported separately on each case, taking the perspective of an individual journalist. In such cases, different outlets may react differently, so the authors of the joint texts may find themselves in various procedural situations.
Our report does not include disputes between journalists or between private media and journalists. Such cases do not fit the pattern: the government versus the journalist (the outlet). There are also no disputes over access to public information, even though journalists are confronted with such issues on a daily basis.
We know about some of the proceedings from the media. Some media and journalists themselves report on their own proceedings on social media. At times, we received off-the-record information from the reporters.
The list is open because there are ever more cases being recorded. We treat this report as a step toward creating a more complete database. We hope that after the publication more journalists affected by repression will come forward. We will make sure to add their cases to the list.
The main purpose of collecting this data is to capture the current scale of harassment of journalists in Poland
Every day, 400 journalists at Gazeta Wyborcza write verified, fact-checked stories about Polish politics and society, keeping a critical eye on the ruling camp’s persistent assault on democratic values and the rule of law; the growing cultural tension between religious fundamentalism and human rights; and the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic. Our journalists are on the front lines in 25 Polish cities, reporting from the streets, hospitals, and courtrooms about issues that move public opinion.
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