New Law Set To Erode Judicial Independence And Municipalities Declared "LGBTI FREE- ZONES”

CIVICUS Monitor update - March 2020
New law muzzles judicial independence

As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, without judicial independence, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association are not duly protected against unlawful acts by the government.

During the past few months, the Polish government has continued its quest to destroy the independence of the judiciary. Unaffected by protests and international outcry, the governing right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) adopted a controversial law that radically restricts judicial independence. On 4th February 2020, President Andrzej Duda signed the legislation into law. The new law introduces several highly problematic measures. For example, judges may be fined, demoted or fired if they hold membership in professional bodies or civil society organisations. It also bans judges from questioning judicial appointments made by the president. The new legislation has been criticised by the European Union and the UN and could lead to Poland losing its voting rights in the EU.

Municipalities adopt anti-LGBTI resolutions

A third of Polish municipalities (about a hundred) have adopted resolutions “against LGBTI propaganda”. Local governments in these municipalities have issued non-binding resolutions which pledge to refrain from taking any action to encourage tolerance of LGBTI people. In addition, they will not provide financial assistance to NGOs working to promote equal rights.

The move for “LGBTI Free Zones” has been condemned by the European Parliament. In reaction to this, LGBTI activist Bart Staszewski launched a campaign in protest and put up signs reading “LGBT-free zone” along roads leading into these municipalities. He then took photographs with LGBTI people who live in those communities, posted them on social media and then took the signs down.

MPs from the Polish ruling party have reacted angrily to this campaign and have asked the public prosecutor to investigate the activist.

PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

Judges and citizens march over judicial independence

On 18th December 2019, a day before the controversial judicial disciplinary panel bill was first tabled, judges, lawyers and citizens gathered across Poland to protest the proposed law. Thousands gathered outside the Polish Parliament in Warsaw and chanted “free courts!”

On 11th January 2020, judicial officers from Poland and from 20 other European countries united for a silent march in the Polish capital city Warsaw. About 30,000 people protested the new controversial judicial law in Poland which seeks to undermine judicial independence. The protest moved from the Polish Supreme Court through central Warsaw to the parliament building.Judges from the Netherlands, Norway and Bulgaria were present at the march.

Amnesty International released a statement ahead of the march in solidarity with the judiciary and the rule of law.

“Judges, lawyers and civil society from many countries are coming together to protest the Polish authorities’ plans to impose severe restrictions on judges’ rights to freedom of expression and association. The changes would bring the remaining free elements of the Polish courts under the political control of the executive branch, spelling the end of the separation of powers in Poland,”- Draginja Nadaždin, Director of Amnesty International Poland.

Report finds court processes on public assembly fair and professional

In November 2019, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR) released a report entitled “Freedom of Assembly in the Practice of Polish Courts”. The report presents an analysis through monitoring court proceedings brought against citizens participating in public assemblies.

The monitoring was carried out in 16 common courts throughout the country between March 2018 and June 2019 and covers the findings of 250 monitoring sessions held in 142 cases.

HFHR found that court proceedings were usually fair and professional. During the monitoring sessions, representatives examined the details of hearings and the conduct of judges, public prosecutors, witnesses and the audience present in court.

A review of the comments made by HFHR monitors shows that in the majority of cases judges, public prosecutors and attorneys treated the parties respectfully and the proceedings were conducted in a fair and professional manner...The courts recalled that the right to freedom of peaceful assembly is a cornerstone of a democratic society, whose fundamental functions include providing a forum for public debate. Peaceful assemblies are intended to protect the common interests of the people and to express personal convictions of citizens,"- Justyna Jezierska, HFHR lawyer and the author of the publication.

EXPRESSION

On 29th November 2019, Wojciech Czuchnowski, a journalist at Gazeta Wyborcza appeared in court over a satirical comment he posted about the governing PiS party on Twitter. The tweet – “I will never again write about the mafia of PiS” – came after he published an investigative story in November 2018, which exposed alleged bribery against the head of Poland’s Financial Supervisory Commission. PiS demanded an apology and a payment of PLN 15,000 (€3,500) to a charity. While Czuchnowski eventually won the case, this does not discount the fact that the libel case against him constitutes governmental harassment.

The libel lawsuit against Wojciech Czuchnowski is merely the latest in a string of cases filed against Gazeta Wyborcza clearly designed to harass the newspaper and its journalists for reporting and commenting on issues of public interest”- Ravi R. Prasad, International Press Institute (IPI) Director of Advocacy.

According to IPI, a total of about 50 criminal and civil cases have been brought against the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper by various state or state-controlled institutions.

In a separate development, in mid-January, the Polish state-owned broadcaster, TVP Info, accused the Senate, parliament’s upper house, of violating media freedom.The Director of the Speaker of the Polish Senate office, Małgorzata Daszczyk, was hit with a TV camera. Video footage shows the speaker Tomasz Grodzki leaving the building, with the TV crew following him in order to secure an interview. It is most likely that this collision with the camera occurred accidentally.

In reaction to this, the Senate applied to remove the press accreditation of a TVP Info journalist. TVP Info has disputed the alleged offence and says the application is an attempt to interfere with journalists’ work.

TVP Info has previously been criticised for its pro-government bias towards the ruling PiS party. Meanwhile, Speaker Grodzki demanded a public apology from TVP Info.