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The reporters drove up near Poland’s eastern border on Tuesday, September 28.  They arrived there shortly after a group of lawyers attempted to reach a camp of Afghan refugees stranded in the no man’s land between Poland and Belarus, missing them by only a few minutes. But while the lawyers were stopped some 5 kilometers outside the camp and told to turn back because they had entered an area covered by the state of emergency, the foreign journalists had to face surprisingly harsh consequences.

Misguided by unclear road signs

Maja Czarnecka is a journalist at AFP in Warsaw where she works as a fact-checker. For several years now, she has been collaborating with the Franco-German TV channel ARTE. Together with Ulrike and Andreas- reporters from ARTE, she went to eastern Poland to cover the migration crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border. On Tuesday, the journalists had planned to interview local residents and take some footage of border guards on patrol. A spokeswoman for the regional branch of the Polish Border Guard advised them to drive up near Szudziałowo, where they could get some good shots of the border guard post while still being outside the zone covered by the state of emergency. At 1:00 p.m., they were supposed to return to Białystok for an interview with the spokeswoman.

- Having reached Szudziałowo, I told the border guards about the presence of ARTE reporters, just in case, so they wouldn't be surprised that we were filming- says Maja Czarnecka. - I also asked them for directions. They showed us a gravel road leading to the village of Sukowicze, which is outside the area covered by the state of emergency. There, we also recorded an interview with a local resident. We stayed there for a bit, hoping to film the border guard patrol as they drive by. We then took a road that led us to the village of Harkowicze. There, seeing a sign informing us about the state of emergency, we turned back. We had no cell phone signal, so we had no idea what road it was and how far we were from Usnarz Górny. A Border Guard patrol came by, and we stopped to see if we could take some film footage. Then, we found out that we were in the zone under the state of emergency and we had to leave – Maja recalls in detail. There is no doubt that they entered the state of emergency area because of unclear road markings. They had absolutely no such intention.

-We had no idea that we were in the area where the state of emergency applies. All the roads we took were open. The guards we’ve met on our way told us to turn around immediately and drive off in the opposite direction, which we did- says Ulrike Dässler.

Border guard officers did not warn them about a police patrol waiting further down the road. Not trying to shoot any more footage, the reporters wanted to get out of the area they had mistakenly entered as quickly as possible. Once they arrived at the village of Babik, they were stopped by a police officer. He did not want to accept any excuses.

- We wanted to ask him what we should do because this was the road the border guard officers told us to take. But the policeman did not want to listen to us and called for backup. We couldn't go back, but we couldn't go any further either – Ulrike recalls.

- The journalists were in an area where they shouldn't have been, they didn't have the proper passes. It's not a matter of believing them or not, the decision was up to the court - says Tomasz Krupa, a spokesman for the regional police department.

Usnarz Górny. Granica polsko - białoruska. Wojsko i straż graniczna pilnują żeby dziennikarze i Fundacja Ocalenie nie zbliżali się do grupy uchodźców przetrzymywanych na granicy. Niedziela 22 sierpnia 2021Usnarz Górny. Granica polsko - białoruska. Wojsko i straż graniczna pilnują żeby dziennikarze i Fundacja Ocalenie nie zbliżali się do grupy uchodźców przetrzymywanych na granicy. Niedziela 22 sierpnia 2021 Fot. Grzegorz Dąbrowski

The reporters were treated like criminals

Things went only further downhill from there. The journalists were questioned and, despite being able to prove their identity, detained for 48 hours. They had their equipment taken away: camera, memory cards, documents, and phones. Their car was towed to a parking lot, and they were taken to the police station in Sokółka. Earlier, they were thoroughly searched.

They spent 24 hours in a detention cell. On the next day, at about 2:00 p.m., they were transported to the District Court in Sokółka, where the police filed a motion against them asking to judge to punish each of them with a PLN 2,000 fine.

Ulrike and Andreas were brought into the court in handcuffs. Maja was not handcuffed

Mr Krupa explains that in the case of an expedited hearing, police officers must bring the offender to court. But what about the handcuffs? He admits that the handcuffs were not used because the journalists were particularly dangerous but rather to protect their own safety and the officers: - We often witness surprising, unpredictable reactions from detainees, regardless of their status- Mr Krupa says.  

The reporters pleaded innocent, but the court found them guilty. The case was heard by Judge Aneta Sidorowicz. She found the three journalists guilty of an offense under Article 23, § 1, section 7 of the June 21, 2002 Law on the state of emergency. However, she was exceptionally lenient in sentencing the journalists- they were only reprimanded.  

None of the defendants asked for a written justification because they wanted the decision to become final so they could immediately get back their equipment- everything was taken to a crime laboratory in Białystok to be checked. On Thursday (September 30), they spent five hours at the police station. Another four - at the border guard headquarters in Białystok, asking for a statement from a spokeswoman. She was too busy.

State of emergency as an excuse to avoid media scrutiny

- Let me just add that it was necessary to reschedule our flights, change hotel bookings. We finished filming as much of the footage as we could. Ulrike and Andreas are already in France - concludes Maja Czarnecka. - We think that the measures were disproportionate to the situation and we want to file a complaint about the detention.

Ulrike Dässler has worked as a journalist for ARTE TV for 30 years. She has often covered crises and conflicts in many countries such as Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, South Sudan, Ivory Coast, Mali, and many others.

- It happened only once or twice that the police stopped us while we were filming. When they asked to see the footage, we never refused. Once, they wanted us to delete a photo and we did it. I've never been in this kind of trouble before- says Ulrike, still shocked.

She says that when they were arrested, the police didn't ask to see the camera footage or the phones, they weren’t interested in that at all.

- I had the impression that they wanted to arrest us for the purpose of deterrence- the reporter thinks.

The night in jail was a nightmare for her. She keeps wondering why it had to happen this way? Why didn't she have the right to contact her family or her superiors? Why wasn't she provided with an interpreter? No soap, no toothbrush, no food. No information about what to do next.

- When they placed me in handcuffs, I felt like a character in a B class movie- Ulrike says. - Do I smuggle drugs or weapons? It even occurred to me that they might have put some in my luggage so they would have a reason to stop me...

She is now talking to her superiors about further legal steps. She had a conversation at the German embassy in Warsaw, where she was told that this is a way to intimidate the media to stop reporting on the refugee situation on the Belarusian border.

- The suffering is over, but the humiliation is unforgivable-  Ulrike tells us.


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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